Biliteracy is this Superintendent's Dream

Biliteracy is this Superintendent's Dream

Todd Chessmore
Todd Chessmore - Watch Video Clip

And he has zero tolerance for harsh words about immigration

Todd Chessmore has been at the helm of the Lexington Public Schools for just two years, but his positive attitude and belief in the potential of all children is spreading throughout the school system.

"I tell people I think Lexington is a model for figuring out how to have immigrants come into a city and into a school system," he said. "We have well-kept facilities; the kids are respectful; they're in class; we have kids that are very successful."

With an enrollment that is 75 percent Hispanic in the 3,000-student system, Lexington Public Schools is different than it was 20 years ago, before Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) - now Tyson Fresh Meats -- came to town in 1990. But Chessmore's "pie-in-the-sky dream" is that every student be biliterate - able to read and write in two languages - before high school graduation. The system has been teaching English to Hispanic students for many years, but is now teaching Spanish to students for whom English is their first language. "I wish I could take credit for starting it, but it was a great program that I inherited," he said. But Chessmore believes students who know more than one language will have more opportunities than students who know only one.

Language has been a hot topic in political discussions about immigration, and one of the common threads is that the immigrant population in the United States should learn English. "And I question that," Chessmore said. "What does it mean to learn English? To write your name? To deal with a bank? To pass the citizenship test in English? It's such an arbitrary statement to make!" Chessmore thinks it's a case of politics coming up with a statement they think people will agree with, without caring about the people they're making the decisions for and about. Still, he believes passionately that learning two languages is one of the keys to students' success.

Research shows the only true, effective way to teach language to kids is to use the dual language method, in which they develop literacy in their dominant language first, and then transfer those skills to the second language, he said. And he encourages people to read to their children at home in the native language, whether it's Spanish, Arabic or Swahili, to encourage literacy in that first language. Even so, he said, research indicates it takes five to seven years for a student to learn another language well.

"I guarantee that in the job market, the one who's bilingual is probably going to get the job.

"I guarantee that in the job market, the one who's bilingual is probably going to get the job," he said. "So, as we talk language, one of the selling points is that the Anglo kids are at a disadvantage, and we need to provide the opportunity for them to be bilingual also."

A dual language program is in its third year in one of the district's elementary schools, and Chessmore thinks it would be great to teach that way in all the schools. Initial test scores indicate that kids in the dual language program are outscoring everyone else in the school district, which is consistent with the findings of national studies, he said. "The people who are most excited about it are the Anglo parents," Chessmore added.

Lexington Public Schools has the largest percentage of minority students in the state, Chessmore said, and has high expectations of all students. Last year, a Lexington High School student was chosen as one of 250 recipients nationwide to receive a Coca-Cola scholarship, and two students are semifinalists this year. The winning student came to Lexington as a non-English-speaker as a first-grader, and finished as the top student in his high school graduating class. He earned a full scholarship to Northwestern University, Chesssmore said. At this writing, either one or two Lexington High School students have been awarded Regents scholarships to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln this year for academic excellence.

Chessmore, who grew up and was educated in Nebraska, became Superintendent of the Lexington Public Schools after holding similar positions in other areas, including six years as head of the Omaha Indian Reservation school system in Macy and three years as head of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation school system in Minnesota. "I have a real empathy for those people who work hard for a living, and I have worked with people in poverty for a significant part of my career," he said. "I have that acceptance of people as they are and not (based on) the color of their skin," he added.

"You want to know the future?" he asked. "Look at the children of today and how we treat them." The future really is the children, and how we educate them will be the determining factor for how the future is for all of us, he said.

"One of the irritating things in our community is the immigration talk. And we are offended by the harsh discussion that goes on," he emphasized. "Sometimes we forget that we are affecting kids when this is the only country they know, but say they aren't welcome here. And I take offense to that, and I take pretty strong offense to it, that we can be so uncaring and harsh on anyone's children."

Chessmore doesn't ignore the comments, and says Lexington joins him in being outspoken against negative immigration talk. "The significant leaders in this community don't have any use for racism," he said, and they actively speak out against it.

People have fed into myths and fears, and it's happened on the national front, he said. "The candidates for President of the United States have pretty humanistic immigration policies," he said, "so it must not be as big an issue as those people crying 'wolf' say it is."

He believes Lexington is a great community with a lot of great people who have a commitment to quality of life for all people, regardless of skin color, and who have a forward vision and a plan for making things happen.

Lexington has recently funded and built a number of new facilities: a new library, water park, a softball complex and a hitting facility. Additionally, plans are in place for a new YMCA, Chessmore said. "THIS is what Lexington's about; not the color of the skin of the people who will use these facilities - it's about what this community IS. Lexington is one of the best-kept secrets in Nebraska."

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