First Students Graduate From Two-Way Immersion Program

Nomaan Merchant

After six years, months of contentious school board meetings and dozens of angry speeches, Evanston/Skokie School District 65’s Two-Way Immersion program will produce its first graduating class this June.

In 2000, the district school board became one of the first districts in the state to establish TWI as its bilingual education model. The program began at two elementary schools.

Since then TWI has dramatically expanded. This fall TWI kindergartens will open in three more schools, bringing the number of schools with the program to eight.

Unlike traditional bilingual education models, TWI places students who are native Spanish speakers and cannot speak English in the same classroom as native English speakers. Starting in kindergarten, TWI students receive 80 percent of core curriculum instruction in Spanish. As students get older, the amount of English used in the classroom increases.

Parents and teachers say TWI students learn a new language while absorbing the same material as they would in general education classes.

One local school participating in the program is Washington Elementary School, 914 Ashland Ave.

“Not only are they absorbing the fifth grade curriculum, but they’re learning another language as well,” said Washington fifth-grade TWI teacher Sarah Mendez.

Of the more than 300 students participating in Washington’s TWI program, 119 are native English speakers.

One parent of a native English-speaking TWI student, Washington PTA co-president Sue Patel, said her experience with TWI has been very positive.

“The students embrace language and heritage,” Patel said. “They feel confident to try new things.”

Mendez, who came to District 65 specifically to teach in a TWI classroom, said students become accustomed to instruction in both languages.

“When it’s time for social studies, the kids know we speak Spanish,” Mendez said. “When it’s time for math, the kids know we speak English.”

Outside the classroom, the school promotes unity between students in TWI and those receiving the general education curriculum.

“Both groups mingle socially,” Mendez said. “On the playground, they’re all just kids.”

Test scores show that native English speakers in TWI perform at levels similar to their general education counterparts. In general, native Spanish speakers in TWI do slightly better on average than do students in regular bilingual education programs.

But critics of the program say it favors white parents and causes divisions within schools.

Native Spanish-speaking students are guaranteed admission into TWI. Native English-speaking students must apply to enter the program. The number of applicants usually exceeds the spots available.

District officials try to ensure that each TWI classroom mirrors the racial makeup of the school in which it is housed.

But at Washington white students take up 78 percent of the spots available for native English students.

Washington’s racial makeup is 32 percent white, 23 percent black and 43 percent Latino.

“There are already concerns about student segregation in public schools, and TWI would enhance it,” said district parent Rebecca Kass at a school board meeting in January.

But the district’s Assistant Director of Information Services Lora Taira, who is in charge of the selection process, said there have not been enough black applicants to the TWI program at Washington to mirror the school’s racial balance.

“In many years, we have selected all of the African-Americans who have applied, particularly into the Washington program,” Taira said.

Judy Yturriago, director of bilingual programs for District 65, said there are “three to four blacks in every TWI classroom.”

“It’s really obvious that the English-speaking population in the district has embraced the program,” Yturriago added.

Despite the program’s successes, Yturriago said TWI needs to be “stabilized,” something that will occur as schools become more accustomed to it.

“We really have to figure out how to best manage the TWI program,” Yturriago said. “It’s been six years of change.”

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]