Spanish immersion?

My recent post regarding change.org came as a result of the following “petition.”

I am writing to let you know that I want broader-reaching foreign language instruction beginning in September 2013 in our elementary schools. Implementing comprehensive foreign language programs (immersion, FLES & after-school) in Arlington will keep our public schools competitive while providing essential skills and enhancing cultural sensitivity, while also benefiting English Language Learners in our school system. A large group of parents support comprehensive foreign language programs in Arlington’s schools. We believe it is imperative to begin a pilot immersion program in 1 or 2 kindergarten classrooms, at a minimum, starting in September 2013 so students benefit immediately while the program develops multiple offerings. Over 95% of hundreds of parents surveyed affirmed that they want to see this important program established in our community. Other public school systems have implemented successful immersion programs; some are Cambridge (Spanish and Mandarin), Framingham (Spanish), Maynard (Spanish), and Millis (Spanish), to name just a few. Bilingual children have greater executive functions, perform better on standardized tests, and do better in math. Let’s get APS into the top 10 in Massachusetts. Immersion programs are very low-cost and high-benefit. The question of teacher salary is usually net-neutral, because retiring teachers are replaced by new teachers who are dual certified. Each year, a new grade would be added to the program, up to grade 5 or 8. Initially there will also be the expense of obtaining pedagogical materials for each grade level, but the materials can then be re-used in subsequent years. The program would begin in one to two schools, and given the high level of demand that we have gauged, a lottery system would be used to fill available spots. As our country’s demographic includes more and more Spanish-speaking immigrants daily, the ability to communicate with millions of people not only in Latin America but in our own country will be a critical skill. Please establish Spanish immersion strands in September 2013 as part of APS elementary education curriculum! Thank you.

The emails generated by change.com do not offer the opportunity to respond or engage in a discussion on the topic, so I am going to use this space to outline my concerns.

First, let’s start with the basics. Should Arlington students graduate with the ability to be literate in more than one language? Of course. I would love to see our graduates walk across the stage with the ability to speak at least two languages. It’s a worthy goal. The question is, how do we get there?

Arlington had a Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES) Spanish program when I first joined the school committee in 2001. During a tight budget season, we eliminated the program. It wasn’t a particularly difficult vote, because we found that students who came up through the elementary program were landing in Spanish I at the Ottoson Middle School. It was a popular program, but it didn’t advance the goal of students speaking a second language.

Now we have a proposal and a lobbying effort for a Spanish immersion program. It goes beyond the first premise that we all agree upon – that children graduating from our schools should be able to speak a second language.

Here’s how the proponents have gone past the first premise. The proponents decided that the language should be Spanish, decided that we should institute an immersion program, decided that we should start the program in kindergarten in 2013, and decided that it should move up a grade level every year. They have gone way beyond the initial statement of need, to place a pre-packaged program at our doorstep. I see lots of problems in the package.

On its face, it sounds like a good idea. If we had unlimited resources, we could hire a new teacher every year and see if the program succeeds. However, as anyone who is involved in a Massachusetts school system knows, resources are rather limited thanks to Proposition 2.5 and the relative lack of state support for public education in our beloved Commonwealth.

Let’s think about what happens if we adopt their proposal. If we go into one of our elementary schools, and convert a kindergarten class to a Spanish immersion class, what would be the impact? We would need to move out a kindergarten teacher and replace her with a new bilingual kindergarten teacher. The following year, we would need to move a first grade teacher out of the school. The following year we move out a second grade teacher. Every year we would disrupt a different grade-level team, removing one member and replacing that teacher with a Spanish bilingual teacher. Which school community wants its successful grade level teams ripped apart to institute a new program?

One of the reasons why we have excellent elementary schools is that we have built successful professional learning communities and grade level teams. It’s an important component of excellence in teaching. If we start an immersion strand in one of our schools, we also end up ripping apart the grade level teams in these schools.

We just went through the pain of a long redistricting process. The school committee acted to create buffer zones, to adjust enrollment to provide an equitable opportunity at all seven schools. After all that, what happens when we place an immersion program in one or two schools? What happens to the people from across town who want the program, and what happens to the people who live in that sending district? Do they get pushed out of their neighborhood school?

We also have a limited administrative staff. We have limited capacity in the district to develop new initiatives. We have strategic goals, we need to institute a new teacher evaluation system, we need to align our curriculum with the new Common Core standards. Which of these do we put aside to institute an immersion program?

Here’s another issue of concern. In Arlington (2011-12), 12.5% of our children speak a first language other than English, 5.3% are classified as limited English proficient. In East Arlington, 28.7% of children at the Thompson school speak a first language other than English, 12.5% are classified as limited English proficient. 19.8% of children at the Hardy school speak a first language other than English, 12.7% are classified as limited English proficient. Spanish is not the predominant second language in town. How does a Spanish immersion program make sense in schools with 20-25% of the children come to school with a home language that is neither English or Spanish? Shouldn’t a program take advantage of the multicultural resources already in place in our schools? Shouldn’t a program have a dual task of helping our second language learners become proficient in English while they help their classmates to learn their language?

So, my thinking is that we should put the brakes on this Spanish immersion program, and go back to the first step. We can acknowledge that we want our children to be multi-lingual, then work together to find a solution that makes sense in the Arlington Public Schools.

2 thoughts on “Spanish immersion?”

  1. Hi Paul,
    I’m ambivelent about this program but I need to comment on some of your comments. First, the people behind this did start with a more general goal of adding a foreign language component to the elementary schools and have been in discussions with Jeff and Laura for quite some time before first coming to the School Committee in September which resulted in the formation of the task force. The “pre-packaged plan” is the result of many discussions and is an attempt to put something concrete before you rather than just have endless studies. I think if you look at turnover numbers, you will see there is plenty of turnover at the elementary level to switch 6 positions from one laguage teachers to dual language teachers. Grade level teams are disrupted every year by this turnover and also by the variations in class size we have as a result of having 7 small schools – i.e. a 2 grade level bulge at Brackett where there are 4 classes instead of 3, K-1 classes created this year, etc. At most causing the movement of one additional teacher a year for the next 6 years is not really significant. The redistricting plan actually makes this idea much more workable. Presumably the classes would be added at Stratton, which after the Thompson kids depart will have sufficient empty rooms. This will draw students away from the overcrowded schools to Stratton, leaving more room for people in the buffer zones to get their first choice school. Seems like you are philosophically opposed to this based on your last objection, which I cannot address, but I think your other criticims miss the mark.
    Len

    1. As I sat in the CIAA subcommittee meeting on Monday (12/17), I looked at a proposed immersion plan that was virtually identical to what was being pitched in September. Except now, I can put a price tag on the proposal.

      The plan that was presented essentially calls for a new strand at the Stratton in 2013-14 beginning with an extra section of bilingual kindergarten. This strand would require adding a first grade Spanish bilingual teacher in 2014-15, a second grade Spanish bilingual teacher in 2015-16, and up through the grades until we add a a fifth grade Spanish bilingual teacher in 2018-19.

      So, let’s say we have an overcrowding problem in the Dallin second grade in 2015-16. Can the Spanish immersion class help that situation? No. We can’t use the new immersion class at Stratton to reduce class size at the Dallin, because the new students coming into the Dallin second grade can’t be moved into the magnet program at the Stratton. Because the immersion program prevents students from joining the program in mid-stream, it’s the worse possible program to ease enrollment bulges elsewhere in the system.

      Back of the envelope math? This program isn’t revenue neutral. If it does reduce the need for an additional teacher in another school, it could be revenue-neutral. If it doesn’t? It’s an extra position. In a best case scenario, where we can reduce a teacher in another school in every grade, it would be revenue neutral. If we don’t get any savings elsewhere, the program could cost up to $500,000 per year after full implementation.

      When you are talking about a potential annual obligation of $500,000 for this program, in the context of a district with limited resources, this is a significant commitment. If we are being strategic, we must arrange it on a list of district priorities.

      Sending out a survey to parents, asking if you would like to see a Spanish immersion program in Arlington – it’s easy to say yes. Rephrase the question – would you rather have a Spanish immersion program or use the money to restore elementary librarians? The answer might change. An online survey where the advocates for a program are soliciting responses will get a biased result.

      But we shouldn’t make decisions based on surveys. We should decisions based on what advances the goals of the district. Our school committee spent considerable time looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the district. We acknowledge that we need to improve our math scores in the middle schools. We acknowledge that we need to improve student achievement among “high needs” students. We need to do more for our special education and English Language Learner populations.

      The principal of the Thompson school, where 28.7% of the students speak a a first language that is not English, in a district where 12.5% of the students speak a first language that is not English, said we are underserving our second language learners. She said it would be immoral to embark on an immersion program before we provide adequate services for our second language learners. I agree.

      Last fall, I said that I couldn’t support an elementary language program that doesn’t also address the needs of our second language learners. I think we can come up with a design that serves the needs of our ELL population and our native English speakers who should learn a new language. A pre-packaged Spanish immersion program isn’t going to do that.

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