Despite what some parents may have heard, Evanston/Skokie District 65 has not made any decisions yet about possible changes to the two-way immersion program (TWI), district officials said at a community meeting Tuesday night.

Bilingual Education Director Amy Correa, left, and Manager of Student Assignments Sarita Smith talk with two-way immersion families at Washington Elementary School on Tuesday, Nov. 15. Credit: Duncan Agnew

The program offers instruction to elementary schoolers in both Spanish and English every day, so that participating students can become bilingual by the time they reach the middle school grades.

About half of the students in the program are native Spanish speakers or speak both languages at home, while the other half are native English speakers.

Native Spanish speakers from Hispanic families are automatically eligible for the program, while English speaking students can enter a lottery for a spot in the classes.

Families from Dawes, Oakton, Willard and Dewey Elementary Schools, among others, said they had heard rumors that their schools will lose the program in the future because the district is planning to relocate all immersion students to the same place. However, District 65 Manager of Student Assignments Sarita Smith clarified Tuesday that no program changes to TWI, or any other special program in the district, will take place until the new Fifth Ward neighborhood school opens.

As of now, that new school is supposed to open for the fall of 2025 at the earliest, according to recent statements made by district leaders.

A map of where Hispanic families live in Evanston and the five elementary schools offering language immersion classes. Credit: District 65

“We’re not getting rid of TWI. The question with student assignments is that right now, we are busing kids to different schools for TWI because we have to, because it’s the law,” Smith said. “We’re busing them out of their neighborhood to go to school. That is not right.”

As a result, the community engagement meetings that Smith and other student programming leaders are conducting this fall, like the one held with TWI families Tuesday night, are for the district to gather feedback on the existing structure of offerings like dual language services.

Ultimately, District 65’s goal is to bring each program – whether TWI, African Centered Curriculum or something else – closer to where the enrolled students actually live, according to Smith.

For example, the neighborhood around Willard in northwest Evanston does not have many Spanish-speaking families, but the school offers TWI because many students from the Fifth Ward are currently being bused to Willard to attend school every day.

Still, many parents attending Tuesday’s meeting voiced frustrations with the district’s registration system, outreach to Hispanic families and general marketing of TWI. Several families said they or their friends were not initially aware of the program until their child had spent days or weeks in regular classes.

“Parents just are unaware of programming, and I think the district has to do its part in figuring out what the barriers are to access,” one parent said, encouraging more investments in customer service for families and clear communication.

District 65 launched the two-way immersion program at Washington Elementary School in 2001. Credit: Duncan Agnew

Plus, even though the program is currently at its highest enrollment across the district in at least five years, with more than 900 students in TWI classes, several schools with the highest need for language services are still not at capacity. Dawes, which is about 30% Hispanic, is one of those schools with open spots remaining, which one parent called “very alarming.”

Others also said they hope the district does a better job in the future developing relationships with the bilingual community in Evanston. Schools legally have to provide language services to students who only speak Spanish, while English speakers can join the immersion program through the annual lottery. But bilingual families who speak both languages at home said they often feel left out of the conversation.

“Because we are not in the school buildings, it’s hard to see the process through fruition, so it would be wonderful if you guys can connect with the PTAs and your principals to really honestly talk about [the program],” Smith said Tuesday. “A lot of the time, my focus is on getting new kids in, but that also means that I’ve lost track of who is currently there. Spanish-speaking families can enter TWI at any time of the process, so if you know of them, if you hear of them, please call us. We will get them in the program.”

Parents and families can learn more about student assignment and provide feedback specific to the two-way immersion program through this District 65 presentation.

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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