On Dec. 4, the District 65 School Board unanimously decided to approve converting Bessie Rhodes magnet school to a Two-Way Immersion, global studies school on a phased-in basis, starting with kindergarten next year, and then adding one grade level year by year.
Before the vote, six Bessie Rhodes parents continued to voice opposition to the plan. At the Board’s meeting on Nov. 21, twelve parents, who reflected a diverse mix of races, ethnicities, and cultures, spoke and requested that the District maintain Bessie Rhodes as a global studies school. All emphasized that they chose Bessie Rhodes because it offered global studies and is a special place.
On Nov. 21, Olga Borovski, a Bessie Rhodes parent, said that 363 people signed an online petition opposing the proposal to convert the school into an all TWI School. She added that a group of parents emailed a survey to Bessie Rhodes families, which was open between Nov. 9 and 15, and 127 surveys were completed. She said 53% of the respondents said they would most likely remove their child from Bessie Rhodes and send their child to another school if Bessie Rhodes was converted to an all TWI school.
Ms. Borovski said, “The top concerns of parents include low teacher morale and the expectation that teachers will begin to leave before their grade is changed over to TWI.” She added that 83% of the respondents said they thought converting the school to an all TWI school would have a negative impact on the school.
Administrators have made some changes to the initial proposal, some since the survey. Under the initial proposal, Mandarin would have been deleted as an option at the school. In response to parent concerns, it was added back.
Administrators have also said they are committed to maintaining a high-level global studies program at the school for current students who will not be part of the TWI program during the transition period, and that the TWI program will complement the global studies program. Administrators also said they are committed to working with teachers and to preserve high level teaching at the school.
At the Dec. 4 Board meeting, Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, outlined the need to add two more TWI strands, summarized the research supporting the TWI model, and listed six reasons for recommending that two strands of TWI be placed at Bessie Rhodes.
Board members acknowledged the need to add two TWI strands to meet the needs of Spanish-speaking English language learners in the District and that the TWI model was the best model. The three factors that seemed to sway most Board members in deciding to place the two new TWI strands at Bessie Rhodes were:
• Placing single TWI strands at a school creates “isolation” for both students and teachers, and the new strands should not be placed at a school that would result in more isolation of either the TWI strands or non-TWI strands.
• The addition of two strands at Bessie Rhodes, which is a choice school, enables the two TWI strands to be added without eliminating a neighborhood school.
• Because Bessie Rhodes has only two strands of classes, expanding TWI at Bessie Rhodes provides an opportunity to create a school with wall-to-wall dual language (TWI) programming where instruction throughout the school is provided in English and Spanish, and it aligns with Bessie Rhodes’ focus on global studies.
Dr. Beardsley said, “We do clearly understand there is impact, positive and negative, at any school at which we would have added these strands. Going to the Board is the recommendation that we believe strongly is in the best interests of students and we believe has the conditions for the best outcome and opportunity for the TWI program.”
“If there are families that are considering Bessie Rhodes in the future, we are offering a Two Way Immersion global studies program. … For the students that are currently enrolled at Bessie Rhodes, we will continue to offer a global studies program and also we are committing some additional funds to strengthen that model and strengthen family engagement.
Superintendent Paul Goren said, “We bring this recommendation to the Board after considerable analysis … The recommendation is the best approach educationally to bilingual services. It can meet the needs of the District in regard to an adequate number of TWI strands, and it has the most likelihood of expanding the student population so that our TWI strands are more diverse.”
“I realize that this sort of change does have real impact on our families and our educators. I’m sensitive to the worries and concerns that have been raised here at Board meetings and in our community sessions over the past few weeks. We will work with the Bessie Rhodes staff and with the community as we make the transition. Should the Board vote in the affirmative for our recommendation, we will maintain the school’s focus on global studies and will continue to offer Mandarin.”
Dr. Goren also noted that during the discussion important issues were raised about serving children in the Fifth Ward, particularly African American children and their families. “I am committed to working with the Board and the community on issues related to families in the Fifth Ward and to addressing how the District can specifically serve and accelerate the performance of African American families in the Fifth Ward.”
Board Member Views
Each Board member thanked Dr. Beardsley and other administrators for their work on the proposal. They also thanked Bessie Rhodes parents who voiced their concerns, which many Board members said helped to improve the proposal.
Candance Chow said, “This is a really critical step we have to take now, and there are other steps that we also have to take to continue the growth of the program.”
When TWI was first implemented in 2001, about 3% of the District’s students were English language learners (ELL), and now there are more than 13%, she said. “Clearly there is a growth in our school system, in our community, and in our larger culture and community that we want to embrace.” Ms. Chow added, “We have a lot of evidence that this is the best model to ensure our students are getting the best supports they need and that their families are getting the best supports they need.
“Teachers are saying they want this kind of expansion, and a wall-to-wall program really will give them the opportunity for a fully holistic program that respects culture and brings bi-literacy to a new level for us.
“The reality is we have to add two new strands as soon as we can. We also know we don’t want to extend isolation [i.e., having only one TWI strand in a school], so we don’t want to add new single strands to have isolated schools; and if we add two strands at any of the other schools, that would be a full conversion of a neighborhood school. There’s disruption any way we look at this. And it’s really challenging. I do think though this is the best solution.
“I am actually excited that we are finally making this decision to grow the program,” said Ms. Chow. “I think it’s been put together thoughtfully.”
Sergio Hernandez said current research “tells us this is the best model, and we’ve seen results that this model has been incredibly successful.”
He said, “The framework – I would like to see it expand across the District. It’s a framework that our children need in the 21st Century in regards to acknowledging other perspectives and working collaboratively. It’s more than necessary to teach our children with a framework that encourages critical thinking and collaborative work and to think about how we can solve problems collaboratively.”
“It’s so exciting to hear that there will be wall-to-wall Two Way Immersion, with a Mandarin option and with global studies,” said Mr. Hernandez.
Mr. Hernandez added, “We are the only industrialized nation that does not train our students to learn more than one language. Evanston can be the lighthouse district that can show the country that we have the capacity to forge a new path in multiculturalism in our nation. This is just the first step. I invite all of you to continue working with us to make this a possibility.”
Mr. Hernandez encouraged parents at Bessie Rhodes, as well as those in the TWI program, to “work with us to ensure that this program meets all of your needs.”
Joey Hailpern said he wanted “to echo what my Board colleagues have said.” He added, “There’s a whole school community that’s been reaching out that wants to be acknowledged, that wants to be heard, that wants to be cared for.” He said “restorative work” needs to be done, and school leaders need to ensure that students have the best possible school environment. “There’s an acknowledgement that for teachers, for administrators, and for parents, this is an adult challenge that most people don’t have to deal with on a regular basis.”
Rebeca Mendoza said, “Sitting here being able to make this decision is for me, it’s an incredible privilege, something I think we will look back on and hopefully be extremely proud.”
She thanked Bessie Rhodes parents for coming out and advocating for their children. “I hope you will stay [at Bessie Rhodes] and that you will be part of the decision and that you will continue to make Bessie Rhodes the dynamic community that it is. We need you to be part of that. I ask that you consider staying.”
Lindsay Cohen told parents, “I hear you. I feel the emotional toll this is taking on you. This is not a decision that anyone here has come to lightly.”
She said because Bessie Rhodes was a school of choice, the recommendation “will cause as little change as possible to the neighborhood schools, while creating this enhanced learning environment. I think this is incredibly important.”
Anya Tanyavutti said administrators are “offering a rich proposal.” She asked, “What are the ways that we will monitor progress?” She suggested keeping an eye on enrollment and how families are being supported, including those who decide to leave Bessie Rhodes, how issues of culture and climate are being addressed, and how strategies to reach out to Black families are working.
She added another issue is how the District is “looking to engage community leaders and our institutional thinking about Fifth Ward students having a school in proximity to their home school.”
Board president Suni Kartha said the Board should set aside time at a Board meeting in the spring to evaluate how the transition is going. She added that there is a need “for some reconciliation work to take place at Bessie Rhodes,” and she would like an update on that.
Ms. Kartha said many of the things she thought had already been said by other Board members. She said the proposal has changed in response to parents’ advocacy, including keeping Mandarin as an option. “We will continue to hear you during the transition. … We do need input from our parents, from our teachers, on how we can make sure that we are continuing to support existing students and families as we transition to this new program.”
“I think this is an exciting prospect for our District,” Ms. Kartha said.
The Plan Going Forward May Have a Larger Impact
A memorandum prepared by Stacy Beardsley, Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, says the next two steps regarding the Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program are to: 1) “complete an analysis of TWI locations and identify ways in which existing TWI strands could potentially be moved and consolidated to minimize single strands and where possible create multiple TWI strands in one site and/or TWI in all classrooms,” and 2) “begin to develop a plan for TWI/Dual Language middle school programing.”
Another issue being considered by administrators this school year is to devise an enrollment management strategy that minimizes the disproportionate impact of busing on Black and Latinx students.
Board member Candance Chow said these projects interrelate and have “implications on attendance-area mapping,” and the important discussion “about busing Fifth Ward students.” She asked if there is a timeline.
Board member Joey Hailpern noted that unlike the current recommendation to place two strands at Bessie Rhodes, which is “taking what is a school of choice and changing what the choice mechanism is,” the plan to look at consolidating TWI sites “means possibly having to remove a neighborhood school.”
Dr. Beardsley said she planned to have an initial draft about the long-term placement of the current K-5 TWI strands within the next six to 12 months. She said understanding the long-term location of the K-5 TWI strands is a first step to analyzing the location of a dual language middle school.
Board President Suni Kartha said the placement of the K-5 TWI strands, the expansion of TWI to the middle schools, and analysis of school attendance areas and busing were interrelated and had to be considered together.
Dr. Beardsley acknowledged, “All these things do connect,” and need to be considered together.