November/December 2019

Innovative Approaches to Dealing with Student Demographic Shifts

By Francela Lopez


Berwyn North SD 98 embarked on a comprehensive review of its educational programs in order to address issues of equity, student achievement, and linguistic diversity. The district, with 2,939 students, is located eight miles west of Chicago’s loop. It serves a high-poverty community with 96% students of color and 33% emergent bilinguals. The district monitors its success not only based on test scores, but also with respect to issues of equity. After an extensive study, the district implemented dual language education district wide. It starts with a vision statement for dual-language instruction:

It is the vision of Berwyn North SD 98 that students acquire a second language with an appreciation of all cultures. Development of a second language will nurture a student’s self-confidence, talents and cognitive flexibility as they become future leaders responding to diverse perspectives. Biliteracy will empower our students to engage and find success in an ever-expanding global society. This will enhance their capacity to achieve their personal, academic and civic potential in order to be college and career ready.

Before 2012, Berwyn North was academically the lowest-performing school district feeding into Morton West High School. At the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, then-Superintendent Carmen Ayala (now the Illinois state superintendent) and then-Assistant Superintendent Amy Zaher (currently at Prospect Heights SD 23) joined the district and immediately recognized the disconnect between curriculum and instruction, absence of cultural responsiveness, and lack of community relationships. All of these factors lead to achievement gaps in reading and in math.

At that time, 88% of the district teachers were white and monolingual. The administration decided to take a district-wide approach regarding cultural sensitivity and also adopted a sheltered instruction program. The program promotes eight essential instructional techniques which make the language of instruction comprehensible for emergent bilinguals. This training allowed the existing staff to make learning more relevant to the student population, which is largely Latino and non-English proficient. The training was offered by cohort for seven years.

Another step taken was to address the needs of students through a district-wide cultural audit conducted by Bea Young and Associates. The audit found many inequities including an inadequate curriculum that was not standards-aligned and lacked academic rigor. Developing a culturally responsive curriculum was one of the first priorities undertaken by the administration. Diverse grade-level teams were established that included building administration, bilingual and general education teachers, and special education teachers. These teams worked on curriculum alignment and increasing academic rigor.

In the 2014-15 school year, Berwyn North created a Dual Language Committee composed of parents from the community, support staff, teachers, and administrators. For two years, the committee researched best practices in dual-language education and completed school visits to prepare staff to implement a successful program. Training for dual language was conducted through cohorts. First, all Pre-K and kindergarten teachers received professional development through The Center for Teaching for Biliteracy and through the district. In the subsequent years, first and second grade teachers followed suit. The district posts conferences and workshops in the newsletter, sends notices via email, and encourages all teachers to attend. In 2016-17, the district provided extra support and hired an EL Program Specialist to work with all EL classrooms. The EL Program Specialist provides support in instruction, planning, and assessment.
What type of support and training do school leaders receive?
School leaders are eligible to attend state conferences and workshops pertaining to bilingual education. All district leaders participated in Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) training. School leaders also participated in Dual Language training as the district prepared to launch the program. Training is comprehensive and ongoing.
How has the district addressed issues of equity?
A district-wide cultural audit was conducted which included all staff, such as secretaries, custodians, and virtually anyone that touches the lives of kids. The audit involved many ways of collecting information from various groups. Surveys, focus groups, and opportunities for dialog were all part of the process. Our cultural responsiveness journey incorporated ideas concerning “Inclusive Behavior Training” for all staff; this served as the foundation for the district’s change. The training included administrators, top district officials, and teachers. Today

  • Cultural responsiveness training remains a part of ongoing professional development.
  • Staff focuses on cultural responsiveness in all meetings that are conducted on Wednesdays. This includes faculty meetings, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), data analysis, and all district initiatives inclusive of dual language.
  • The Curriculum Department implements one standards-based curriculum for all students regardless of socioeconomic or racial-ethnic background.
  • When vacancies occur, the district places an emphasis on hiring staff that more closely represents student population in terms of racial/ethnic background.
  • District departments no longer work in silos — goals are shared across the system.

A Culturally Responsive Curriculum
Berwyn North also developed a new, culturally responsive curriculum for all students through a teacher-driven process of deep alignment and shared assessments. Culturally responsive curriculum development means not only focusing on what is being taught, but how it is being taught to diverse learners. Berwyn North set equitable learning as its driving goal. For example, when examining “what” was being taught, the Berwyn team emphasized that the curriculum for all learners should be the same — equal rigor and equal expectation. Equitable learning opportunity necessitates differentiation of supports based on the needs of different student groups. When we monitor our progress, student achievement data reflected a more rapid rate of growth than the state at large. The district’s PARCC results show a 10-point improvement, from 23 to 33, in the composite PARCC scores from 2015 to 2018, compared to a 4-point improvement statewide.

Francela Lopez is English Learner Program Director for Berwyn North SD 98.