Parents question immersion program changes
The district plans to modify the format of the programs at Newby and Columbus elementary schools next year, Superintendent Maryalice Russell said. The changes are designed to help students reach state standards within the confines of limited resources.
Kristian Frack, coordinator of English Language Learner and migrant programs, said one factor driving the change is the need to boost the performance of native Spanish speakers at Newby.
In a letter to parents, he said many of the school’s ELL students are two or more years below grade level in reading and writing in Spanish, while their peers at other schools are at grade level or at least close.
Being behind in Spanish and English could continue to affect the ELL students as they go on to middle school and high school, he said, since they may not able to perform well in English-only academic classes and they are “effectively excluded from taking elective classes such as music or student leadership” because they need to take additional reading-intervention classes instead.
The Newby program has started students learning both languages in kindergarten. Native English speakers pick up Spanish and native Spanish speakers begin learning English while at the same time becoming more fluent in their first language. About 30 percent of Newby’s students, half native Spanish speakers and half native English speakers, are participating.
But the required 50:50 ratio has only made it possible to accommodate half the school’s native Spanish speakers. So next year, the district has decided to relax the requirement. “The alternative, doubling the size of the program, is not feasible for a variety of reasons,” Frack wrote in a letter to parents.
Columbus classes also involve more than a quarter of the students, including both Spanish and English native speakers. But they don’t dictate a 50:50 ratio, so have been able to accommodate almost all of the school’s native Spanish speakers.
At both schools, most students start the dual-language classes in kindergarten and expect to continue in the program into middle school. The Columbus model, on which the modified Newby program will be based, calls for all students to become literate in their dominant language first, and for Spanish speakers to transition to English reading and writing by the end of fifth grade.
Parents said they were surprised by the changes. They said they are strongly invested in the program’s success and should have been consulted.
Russell said both she and Newby Principal Dave Carlson have met with a number of parents in the weeks since. In addition, the district has two information meetings scheduled for Thursday, June 13, one in Spanish and one in English.
Matt Meador, father of a Newby student, said he and his fellow parents admire the district’s history of commitment to creative programs. But, he said, “We’re concerned about changes and request we, as parents, have a voice in any dialogue regarding changes at Newby or Columbus.”
He said the U.S. is “one of the few countries on the planet that pretends it has only one language.” Dual-language programs can help change that, he said.
Tanya Perez, mother of two dual-language children at Columbus, read a letter in Spanish. She handed out copies translated into English.
“My English is not 100 percent,” she said. “That’s why I want my children to speak both.
“My greatest pride is to see how easily they can switch from having a conversation in Spanish to having one in English.”
Marcela Martinez, a Spanish-speaking mother and Spanish K-SMART volunteer, submitted a letter.
“From kindergarten, Myra has had instruction in both Spanish and English, which is why she is so successful,” her mother said of her oldest, now taking advanced language arts at Duniway and pointing to a career in medicine. “She can read, write, speak and listen in both languages at very high levels.
“Our community needs more doctors who are bilingual. To be bilingual is an important gift to our community.”
Board members listened to about 20 minutes of testimony from the parents, who had waited through two hours of other business before the public forum part of the meeting. Although they don’t usually respond immediately to public comments, several addressed the topic Monday.
Scott Gibson said the board’s subcommittee on instruction had asked a lot of questions about proposed modifications to the programs.
He said the changes are a process of evolution to keep the program strong within the confines of available resources. The district is open to input, he said.
Board member Scott Schieber, who enrolled a child in the first immersion group at Newby six years ago, said the program has been undergoing changes for several years. He noted funding shortages from the recession led to cuts across the board.
By the time his son completed fifth grade, he had “an amazing Spanish background,” Schieber said. But he wasn’t fluent, and he might have suffered some in math from not being in a regular math program.
“The district has to face realties,” he said. He cited limited resources and equity, saying students in all six grade schools should have equal opportunity.