Sandoval Elementary Steps Up Bilingualism and Gets Results

When Wilma David became principal of Sandoval Elementary School three years ago, she knew she needed to make some improvements. The neighborhood school in Gage Park had fallen to a Level 2+ — a mid-tier rating in Chicago Public Schools — so David and her staff got to work.

Teachers were asked to look more closely at how individual students were performing on reading and math tests and to set goals for the beginning, middle and end of the year. David started tracking student growth by classroom on the large whiteboard in her office. And she encouraged teachers to work together by offering to pay for subs so teachers could visit one another’s classrooms and get feedback.

“We cannot work by ourselves. The work is already hard as it is,” David said. “We need to support each other and seek ideas from one another, so that I have 200 [fifth-grade] students that are succeeding and not pockets of students that are getting it and then those that are not.”

About six in ten students at Sandoval is an English learner — one of the highest percentages in the district — so the school’s efforts to step up the bilingual education program have been key.

Carlos Santoyo, who’s coordinated the bilingual education program at Sandoval for a decade, said the school had some deficiencies in its program over the last few years and had to improve the quality of instruction and make sure all students were getting the required services in their classrooms. This year, he said, the school’s bilingual program reached an “established” status, which means it’s fully in compliance with the state law and the quality of instruction is consistent across grade levels.

“[The administrators] are very supportive of the work, especially me and the work I do,” Santoyo said. “They make sure I have everything I need.”

This school year, Sandoval reached the district’s highest rating, a Level 1+, after showing strong growth in reading, and especially in math. Now, some major investments are on the way that will likely raise the school’s profile even further.

Sandoval has quickly expanded its early childhood offerings: last year it had only one half-day preschool class and next year it will have four full-day classes. And CPS officials chose Sandoval as one of eight additional schools to offer dual language this coming year as the district expands bilingual education programs that help students fully master two languages. CPS only picks schools that already have strong bilingual programs, or have done a lot of work to improve them.

Sandoval will start by offering dual language in preschool and kindergarten, and gradually expand to fifth grade. (Sandoval feeds into the neighboring Hernandez Middle School, where students attend sixth to eighth grades.) Dual-language students will begin with instruction that’s 80 percent in Spanish and 20 percent in English in the younger grades, until they reach an even split by fifth grade. To prepare, a team of teachers met regularly this year to plan their lessons, visit other schools and get training.

A Commitment to Bilingualism and College-Going

At the root of her work as an educator is Principal David’s experience growing up in Chicago. She moved to the city from Puerto Rico in third grade, attended CPS schools and was in bilingual education herself. She began her 25-year career in CPS as a second-grade bilingual classroom teacher. So she’s deeply familiar with both the challenges many of her students face, as well as their strengths.

“I’m able to relate to them at a different level,” she said. “I’m able to be very sensitive to their needs. You really have to be a firm believer in bilingual education and the importance of knowing more than one language.”

Principal Wilma David (right) celebrates College Day at Sandoval Elementary.
(All photos by Kalyn Belsha.)

David has also worked hard to develop a college-going mindset in her students, as early as preschool. When she was in high school, David said, she ranked high in her class, but she didn’t plan on attending college right away. It was only at the insistence of her high school counselor that David applied to college and set out on a path to becoming an educator.

“Our schools play such a huge role in our community,” she said. “We have to listen to that.”

When I toured Sandoval earlier this month, each teacher had decorated his or her classroom in the style of a different college or university for the annual College Day.

When David and I approached a third-grade classroom, a group of students excitedly ushered us in wearing University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign T-shirts. (David spent around $5,000 from her school budget to make sure each of her some 900 students had a T-shirt for the special event.)

The whole class sang the school’s fight song — “Hail to the Orange” — before a few students walked us around the room telling us about the school’s admissions requirements and how much the tuition and room and board would cost. After one third-grader told David about the scholarships and financial aid the school offered, she leaned in.

“So it’s possible. Right?” she said softly.

“Yeah,” the student replied.

“So, money. Is money an issue? No. Money is not an issue,” David continued. “It’s a matter of: Do you want to go to this university? And if you want to go to this university, there are different ways that you can get to that university.”

Later that day, students paraded down the street and into the park next to Sandoval, chanting the names of colleges, beating drums and waving banners, while their parents and community members watched from the sidelines or front porches.

The event is one of many ways the school has tried to make parents and community members feel welcome at Sandoval.

Bilingual pre-kindergarten teacher Alejandra Rodriguez said she tries extra hard to build strong relationships with her students’ parents because she knows what it feels like when that is missing. Her own Mexican immigrant parents don’t speak English, and had a hard time communicating with her CPS teachers who didn’t speak Spanish.

Now Rodriguez shares funny stories about her students with their parents to get them to open up and laugh, as well as sends extra resources home like name puzzles and laminated letters. She also tries to incorporate both Mexican and American culture into her lessons. Her mother even came in to teach her students how to make guacamole. It’s something parents notice.

“At our last report card pickup, one of the moms was like: ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t see you as a teacher,’” Rodriguez said with pride. “’I see you as family because of the way you treat the parents.’”

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Kalyn Belsha

Kalyn Belsha is a Chicago-based reporter who specializes in writing about education, youth, race and poverty. Her work has appeared in Catalyst Chicago, The Chicago Reporter and the suburban Chicago Tribune. She was a 2019 Spencer Fellow at Columbia University's School of Journalism.