Parents of students enrolled in the two-way immersion (TWI) program at Evanston’s Dewey Elementary School, as well as teachers, are worried about a “lack of support” and “low prioritization” for Latino families and the Spanish language, according to emails obtained by the RoundTable through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Three of the six TWI teachers at Dewey are leaving for other schools or other districts this summer, two voluntarily and one whose contract was not renewed by the district, according to the emails and interviews with parents.
Since May, the RoundTable has been looking into issues in this specific TWI program at Dewey, which serves 94 of the 370 students at the school. That deep dive – including analyzing public records and talking to parents, school board representatives and district officials – revealed an alarming lack of responses from school board members and district administrators to parent and teacher concerns, which include teachers leaving and the treatment of Spanish-speaking families at the school.
In short, the RoundTable found a program in deep disarray and facing an ongoing crisis.
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the RoundTable that a strong commitment for bilingual language services from the principal and district administrators is “essential” for any English learning program to succeed.
MALDEF, founded in 1968, is a nonprofit that prioritizes education as the country’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization.
Saenz read all the emails the RoundTable requested in its FOIA and said in a phone interview: “When you have teachers leaving, that’s a sure fire indicator that there’s a lack of commitment at the principal level. That indicates that this is a program that’s in deep trouble.”
Parents and teachers identify the problems
According to the District 65 website, the TWI program is designed “to develop strong literacy skills and language proficiency in both English and Spanish, in order for [students] to become bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural.” Native Spanish speakers eligible for English language learning services automatically qualify for the program, while native English speakers can apply and enter a lottery for the chance to enroll in TWI.
Currently, Dewey, Washington, Dawes, Oakton and Willard elementary schools offer the program to eligible students from kindergarten through fifth grade, and the Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies offers the program from kindergarten through third grade.
There are 370 students at Dewey: 42% are white, 24% are Hispanic, 14% are Black, 10% are multiracial and 7% are Asian. Dewey has one of the school system’s largest Hispanic communities, as just over 20% of District 65 students are Hispanic, according to a presentation made by Dewey Principal Kimberly Watson on May 18. As of November 2021, 94 students at Dewey were enrolled in the TWI program across six different homeroom classes.
In May, as the school year entered its final few weeks, the RoundTable received a number of calls and emails about Dewey’s TWI program and has been looking into the program’s issues ever since.
The RoundTable filed a FOIA request with Evanston/Skokie School District 65 for correspondences with teachers and families about these issues and received 13 emails written by seven different Dewey parents in May and June expressing concerns about the state of the TWI program. (Those emails with the names of parents and children redacted are attached below.)
The RoundTable also emailed school board members to clarify the problems and had extensive phone conversations with five parents of students enrolled in Dewey’s TWI program. The RoundTable also provided all those emails to Saenz as a condition of his comment on the story.
The emails show that parents and teachers were concerned enough about the program to notify board members and central district administrators about the culture and climate issues experienced by Spanish-speaking teachers and students during the 2021-22 academic year.
One of those emails, from the parent of a current Dewey student in the TWI program, included a letter written by the school’s TWI teachers, several of whom are native Spanish speakers themselves, outlining problems and microaggressions they experienced during the 2021-22 school year.
The parent sent that email, dated June 8, and written by at least half the TWI staff who did not identify themselves, to all school board members.
“We take our role as advocates in this community very seriously and want to always ensure that our Latinx families have a voice and that the commitment to the Spanish language is valued and understood,” the TWI teachers said in their letter to the Dewey community. “This year, this commitment has not only been devalued and misunderstood, but it has been dismissed by the current administration.”
The letter also talks about a spring meeting with Dewey Principal Watson, who asked the TWI teachers at the school to hand in their lesson plans for review.
(Several teachers write their lesson plans in Spanish, since the classes they teach are bilingual, and many students in those classes are native Spanish speakers. Watson allegedly referred to the lesson plans written in Spanish as “gibberish,” according to multiple emails from parents and teachers to school and district administrators.)
“We have sat in meetings where the current administration has called our language, the language of many of our ancestors – the language that we have chosen to dedicate our lives to uplifting – this language has been called ‘gibberish,’” the letter from teachers to the Dewey community said. “The scars that word has left on us cannot be described.”
Weeks before a parent forwarded that message to school board members, several parents expressed concern about Watson’s comment in emails to central district administrators, including District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton, Assistant Superintendent of Operations Terrance Little, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Andalib Khelghati, Dean of Culture and Climate Elijah Palmer, School Board President Sergio Hernandez and teachers’ union president Maria Barroso, among others.
“You are dishonoring the voices of all the Spanish-speaking families at Dewey by not answering our concerns,” another immersion program parent wrote in a May 16 email to Horton, Little, Khelghati, Barroso and Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Romy DeCristofaro.
“In an administration that makes equity the top priority I didn’t think I had to explain the importance of the TWI program for our families and the urgency we feel when we see our program crumbling.”
The district did set up a May 18 town hall meeting to address the concerns that included parents, Watson and several central office administrators. In that virtual gathering, Watson spoke about new programs for the upcoming school year designed to improve the culture and climate at Dewey, including the creation of a Bilingual Parent Advisory Council and several affinity groups for parents and caregivers.
Two days after the town hall, Watson announced that she was taking a personal leave of absence for the remainder of the school year, but she returned for the final week of school on Monday, June 6.
At the June 7 meeting of the district’s Curriculum and Policy Committee, Watson gave a presentation outlining her plans for the next school year, and she identified a “need to create [a] stronger community” at the school.
At that same committee meeting, board member Anya Tanyavutti spoke to thank Watson for her honesty in identifying areas for growth and also characterized some of the communication from parents to Watson as ones that “bordered on abuse,” and she said a “climate of dysfunction and abuse” had already existed at Dewey.
Yet, within a few days, the district moved Watson from Dewey principal to Nichols Middle School assistant principal for the 2022-23 year. When the RoundTable asked the district what was behind the transfer and demotion in title to Watson just days after she outlined plans for the upcoming year, District 65 Executive Director of Communications Melissa Messinger said district administrators “believe she is a strong fit” to fill the assistant principal vacancy at Nichols.
“We believe that the situation was largely taken out of context and was not intended to cause harm or devalue the language or culture of our Spanish speaking community,” Messinger told the RoundTable regarding Watson’s alleged “gibberish” comment. “This being said, we certainly recognize the sometimes unintended impact and consequences that our words can have and must individually and collectively work to ensure we are all living up to the shared values within our community.”
Watson did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the RoundTable, and Messinger also did not reply to a follow-up email from the RoundTable asking for more information about how the incident was taken out of context.
The program’s future
Germán Espinosa, a Dewey TWI parent whose wife often provides English to Spanish translation services at parent-teacher association meetings, said the damage to Dewey’s TWI program from departing teachers and a lack of support “will be almost impossible to repair in the short term.”
“We’re just very sad to see how all of this developed, and I personally do not understand why all of this happened,” Espinosa said. “I find solace in seeing how the community built tighter bonds to protect the TWI program, and how we are now better prepared and more involved in the selection of the next principal.”
Saenz told the RoundTable that to him, Watson’s alleged “gibberish” comment is only one anecdote about a larger issue regarding the district’s commitment to the TWI program.
“When [that comment] is coupled with some of these other complaints about how she manages teachers, then it really raises an issue that the district has to investigate, because if you lack commitment to dual immersion, it will not succeed,” Saenz said. “There’s no question.”
Saenz also added that recruiting, hiring and retaining trained, bilingual and culturally-competent teachers to lead English learner programs is a nationwide challenge at school districts because the supply of those teachers simply cannot meet the demand.
As a result, many dual immersion and English language learning programs are at a crisis point because they are understaffed and lack sufficient resources, Saenz said.
Moving forward, the district can try to solve the problem by redoubling its investments in the TWI program through careful recruitment and training of educators, or the district can choose to downsize the program if those efforts fail, according to Saenz.
“On the positive side, you could make sure that you’re able to recruit new teachers who are well-trained and competent,” Saenz said. “On the negative side, you could shrink the program to match the number of trained, competent teachers you have, but then you have to diminish the number of students in the program. But if you don’t do those things, and you lack a sufficient number of competent, bilingual teachers, it absolutely will manifest in student performance.”
For its own part, District 65 has used grant funding to establish the CREATE 65 Teacher Residency Program, which is specifically aimed at recruiting future educators interested in bilingual education or diverse learners. Aspiring teachers chosen to participate in that program will get a master’s degree in education from Chicago State University and a Professional Educator’s License while also spending four days a week in an Evanston school under the mentorship of an experienced teacher.
Even with the CREATE 65 program underway, trained and culturally-competent bilingual educators are a rarity in the current marketplace, according to Saenz. One parent acknowledged those challenges in an email to administrators, recognizing the tough spot that the district and the TWI program are currently in.
“I also want to name here that I very much understand that all of you and Dr. Watson are in incredibly difficult positions on various fronts and are attempting to manage multiple and intersecting issues (the word doesn’t encompass the severity of recent incidents at Haven),” that parent wrote to Horton, Palmer and Hernandez.
“And, it is the responsibility of the administration to make sure that all of our communities, particularly our Black and Latinx communities, feel supported, heard and safe.”
In their letter, the Dewey TWI teachers explained how Watson’s comment referring to lesson plans in Spanish as “gibberish” feeds into the history of Americans belittling immigrants by dehumanizing the Spanish language and forcing native Spanish speakers to assimilate to American culture by only speaking English.
Two parents of another Dewey TWI student, who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala, reflected that dynamic when they wrote a May 9 email to Horton.
“We left Guatemala almost 6 years ago with the idea that Evanston was a place where we could raise our children in a safe, professional, and nurturing environment,” they wrote. “Instead, we have found resistance towards our heritage – calling Spanish ‘gibberish’ when it is the second most spoken language in the US, is a disrespect that borderlines xenophobia.”
Despite every board member and most of the district’s central administration becoming aware of this incident in early May, the district has not publicly addressed the situation, and Watson has not publicly apologized to the Latino community at Dewey.
In fact, the only person who responded directly to any of these emails from parents was Hernandez, who mainly spoke about concerns regarding the departure of three TWI teachers. He addressed the “gibberish” comment at the end of an email he wrote in Spanish to one of the parents.
“Finally, I want you to know that I and my board colleagues agree that Spanish, and any other language used in our school district, is not gibberish,” Hernandez wrote. “We believe that different languages are cultural treasures to be respected and honored, and it will be our job to see that everyone in our district learns, understands, and practices this belief.”
In an email to the RoundTable, Hernandez said the district is hiring an assistant principal of dual language programs to assist the TWI program at Dewey, Oakton and Willard. The school board also recently approved a two-way immersion coach position to support TWI educators across the district, according to Hernandez.
“In that meeting [in May], we shared a preliminary plan to address the culture and climate issues as well as programmatic support needs that are affecting the TWI community at Dewey,” Hernandez said. “The meeting was productive and restorative, and I shared our District’s commitment to continue building out the TWI program at Dewey and across the district.”
You can read the full, 14-page Freedom of Information Act response District 65 sent to the RoundTable, including the emails from parents to administrators, at this link. We have redacted the names of the parents who sent the emails.
It’s approximately 30 years since the TWI program at Washington school was launched, and the community still can’t seem to figure out how to implement these critically necessary programs in a consistent manner.
I was sorry to read about what appears to be the dissolution of the TWI program at Dewey School for lack of support of both the school administration and at the District level. There is a great need to sensitize native English speakers to Hispanic/Latin culture as well as to increase the comfort of native Spanish speakers with our American/English language and institutions. The TWI program has great potential to overcome barriers of all participants and create greater understanding and community beginning at a young age.
In the 1960s as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Medellín, Colombia, I learned to speak, read and write Spanish. Now, nearly 60 years later I maintain my proficiency with the language through travel, reading, a weekly Spanish speaking group that meets at the Levy Center and contact with friends in Colombia. We have traveled extensively in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America, Colombia and Ecuador. Spanish has helped me communicate in Portuguese and even Italian. From 2010 to 2017 my wife and I volunteered as fluency tutors at Oakton School. I volunteered in classes where only English was spoken and in TWI classes. I enjoyed the TWI classes immensely. I found the students and the teachers involved and engaged. I heartily support learning a second language, and even more than one. Not only are communication skills honed but also through language learning an appreciation of other cultures is developed including life styles, food, history…name it and it is available to broaden our view of the world.
To assist in bolstering the TWI program at Dewey School and in District 65, it might be advisable to seek volunteers who speak both English and Spanish to assist in TWI classrooms. It does not matter which is the native language and which is the second language. The requisite is to be able to communicate clearly in both.
Ojalá este asunto está arreglado pronto.