While the number of District 65 students who are new to English and those who have disabilities remain steady, the percentage of those who need specialized services has risen, officials reported at board meeting Monday night.

Evaluations for students with disabilities who have individualized education programs (IEPs) rose by 2% this school year compared with last year, said Anna Marie Candelario, Director of Individualized Education Services. Most of that increase resulted from the pandemic disrupting the lives of students, she said.

The district also processed an additional 140 IEPs for students after the start of the year, she said. Superintendent Devon Horton admitted that it had been “a bumpy ride” trying to decide on staffing levels for special education teachers and paraprofessionals.

“It’s been really unpredictable. What we projected, based on all of the numbers that we had in front of us, ended up completely different in the fall, and I think a lot of that had to do with the pandemic, so I’m hopeful that moving into next school year, what we’re looking at is more accurate,” said Romy DeCristofaro, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services. “We had to add staff this year. We ended up with more kids than we planned for, so we’ve been adding staff as the year has gone on, and I’m hopeful we won’t be in that position next fall.”

Since 2020, while the district has seen an increased demand for special education services, inclusion for students with disabilities in general education settings has increased significantly, said DeCristofaro and Anna Marie Candelario, director of Individualized Education Services.

More than 70% of students with IEPs are spending at least 80% of their time in general education classes with other students who do not have an IEP. More and more principals and educators are buying into that model and regularly training educators to co-teach classes with a mix of students with and without IEPs, according to DeCristofaro.

Historically, the district has over-diagnosed Black and Latino students with emotional and learning disabilities, they reported on Monday, March 27. Some of that trend has reversed, with Black students taking up a slightly decreasing percentage of students with IEPs over recent years.

The overrepresentation of Latino students among those with IEPs, though, is increasing, Candelario’s presentation to board members showed. About a quarter of all English language learners in the district, the vast majority of whom speak Spanish as their first language, have an IEP.

“This is the group that I feel is most marginalized,” Candelario said, referring to a need for the district to provide better support for Spanish speaking students and families. “Just looking at our interventions in English and in Spanish, there’s a gap that we need to do a little bit better with.”

Moving forward, the student services team is working on creating a more family- and student-friendly IEP process that focuses more on student preference and voice. The district is also prioritizing partnerships between parents and teachers for students with IEPs to improve communication, which Candelario said should help alleviate some of the “bumpy ride” that Horton had referred to.

Multilingual students

Simultaneously, the percentage of English learners in the district has increased from under 10% of the student population in 2014 to nearly 17% today, said Bilingual Education director Amy Correa.

About 65% of English language learners in the district speak Spanish as their native language, and students this year speak a total of 71 different languages at home.

Depending on the school building, the district offers both transitional bilingual education (TBE) and transition programs of instruction (TPI), according to Correa. The bilingual programs include full dual language services through the two-way immersion (TWI) program available at six elementary schools and part-time immersion at the three middle schools, while TPI is covered by English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction.

Research shows that most students require between five and seven years of language practice to become fully bilingual, Correa said.

Former English learners who become fully proficient in the language perform better academically than their general education peers in the district, she reported. As a result, she told board members that while English learners may have lower scores initially, they need time to adapt.

“We surpass monolingual English students in academic progress in math, reading and all the other subjects,” said Sergio Hernandez, the first Latino president of the District 65 board. “And that’s because we have to use more of our brain because we’re learning two or three languages, so it’s just amazing.”

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Duncan Agnew

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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