Bilingual youth are first to complete immersion program

Nomaan Merchant

Six years after Shannon Smith started learning Spanish, she is fully bilingual. She can read in both languages and she’s traveling to Puerto Rico next month.

Smith is in fifth grade.

Smith is part of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65’s Two-Way Immersion program, in which each class is composed of equal proportions native English and Spanish speakers.

Class is conducted in both languages, and test scores show that the program helps both English and Spanish speakers.

Smith and her classmates were among the first students to enter the program as kindergartners in 2000. Now they make up the program’s first fifth-grade class, at Washington Elementary School, 914 Ashland St.

Her mother, June Cathcart-Smith, said the program was “absolutely wonderful,” comments echoed by other TWI parents from both language groups.

But many parents and administrators are criticizing a recently approved middle school bilingual education curriculum for elementary school students separate from TWI.

From kindergarten until third grade, TWI students receive 70 to 80 percent of all instruction in Spanish. By fifth grade, that proportion falls to half.

On statewide reading and math tests, limited English proficient students in TWI outpaced their counterparts in traditional English as a Second Language Programs. At the same time, students in both languages became more proficient in their non-native language.

Third-grade TWI students and general education students performed similarly on many tests, according to data from 2004 provided by the district.

Parents at Washington said TWI brings together students of different races, particularly since students entering the program keep the same classmates through fifth grade.

The program also teaches content effectively while students increase proficiency in both languages, parents said.

Washington parent Cheryl Flack, whose daughter is in the fourth-grade TWI program, said her daughter greatly benefitted from the program.

“It’s been an amazingly good experience for her academically and socially,” Flack said. “The combo of the academic piece and the social piece is really great.”

The new middle school program places TWI students proficient in English in classes taught only in English, while non-proficient students will take separate classes co-taught by a general education teacher and a bilingual teacher.

English proficient students in TWI also receive the option to take Spanish in sixth grade, while regular middle school students cannot. Middle schools will also offer a Spanish literature class that students can take in place of their fine arts class.

But the option to take Spanish comes with a trade-off.

“(My daughter) would have to give up drama or arts or music for a Spanish literature class, which totally defeats the purpose of the TWI program,” Flack said.

Jeanette Hollingsworth, whose daughter is a first-grade TWI student, said the new program fails to properly bridge the gap between elementary and middle schools.

“One hour of Spanish literature is not really continuing the momentum developed by the kids through grades K-5,” Hollingsworth said.

But District 65 school board member Jerome Summers, who voted to enact the proposal at the board’s Jan. 24 meeting, said at the meeting that extending the TWI program to middle schools is not feasible.

“Ultimately, as far as extending TWI into middle schools, kids have to grow up,” Summers said.

Board member Julie Chernoff, who cast the deciding vote to approve the proposal, expressed concern about whether the new program best serves students.

“I don’t know if there is a right decision,” Chernoff said. “We have to do what we feel is best for the LEP students while taking into account the needs of every other student.”

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]