School board members had tough feedback Jan. 15 for proponents of starting a dual language immersion program, saying they liked the concept but the process felt rushed and lacked communication.

Backers, meanwhile, said the idea has proven popular with parents, and of 190 surveyed, 70 percent (132), said they would enroll their child in the program. Another 18 percent (35) said they might, and only 13 percent (25) said no.

They emphasized it would start small, in just one school in one or two kindergarten classes, and would grow one grade level per school year.

The plan as it stands calls for starting the program next fall—at a school site to be announced Feb. 27—with one or two kindergarten classes made up equally of native Spanish speakers and non-Spanish speakers, who would be chosen by lottery. Lessons would be 90 percent in Spanish, and would gradually become an equal mix of English and Spanish by the end of elementary school. Another grade would be added each year, and would ultimately go through 12th grade.

Comments from the North Wasco County School District 21 board came after teachers and other speakers were similarly critical of the process at the beginning of the meeting. (See related story.)

Superintendent Candy Armstrong said via email after the meeting that the dual immersion committee would meet to review the board’s feedback and determine what to recommend.

She said, “The location is a major concern and the committee has definitely not determined a recommendation on location.”

Colonel Wright teachers told the board in December they heard their site was being considered and they said it would force non-Spanish speaking teachers to be relocated to another school and the tight-knit Colonel Wright school would no longer be a neighborhood school but a destination school.

D21 board member Solea Kabakov said, “I completely support the program, it’s the process to get there that feels flawed.”

She said the committee studying it seemed small and didn’t represent enough groups.

Board Vice Chair Jose Aparicio said that nobody who would benefit from the program was on the committee, “or even in the room,” he said of the 40-strong meeting crowd.

Committee members include the superintendent, the principals of all three elementaries, the district human resources director, English Language Learner (ELL) teachers from each elementary, and Jonathan Fost, director of the Migrant Education Program at the Columbia Gorge Education Service District.

Teachers from Colonel Wright said in December they tried to get on the committee, but couldn’t.

Fost said everybody who expressed interest was invited to a meeting last August, but it had to be canceled, and when there was a reboot of the committee the money anticipated for a larger committee wasn’t available.

The idea for a dual immersion program was recommended by ELL teachers after the school district learned four year ago it was one of the 15 lowest-performing districts in the state in terms of outcomes for English Language Learners, and it was required to change its instruction method.

Currently, ELL students are pulled out of classes for extra instruction.

The school board last January gave the go-ahead for program planning to begin, with an expected start date of fall 2020.

At that meeting a year ago, then-board member Bethani Frantz-Studebaker lauded the proposal, saying dual language immersion “is not a new idea. It’s been highly effective, highly researched and highly implemented, globally.”

Dual language programs benefit both native and non-native speakers, and by the upper years of elementary school, students enrolled in such programs academically outperform students not enrolled in them, according to a four-year federal study done in Portland Public Schools.

In a staff survey taken last year, one staff member wrote, “I have worked in many districts where we had dual language programs. I have witnessed second language learners making greater academic progress as well as English only students becoming fluent in a second language.”

Chenowith Elementary Principal Monica “Mo” Darnall, who started a dual immersion program in Hillsboro, and has also taught in them, said the committee would grow once the school site was announced.

Board member David Jones was critical of that timing, saying, “You’re going to decide on the site before you talk to the community.”

Colonel Wright teachers in December told the board they felt Chenowith Elementary, with its much higher population of English Language Learners, made more sense as home for the program.

Colonel Wright is the smallest of the three elementaries, with two kindergarten classes compared to four at the other two schools.

Since the program requires Spanish-speaking teachers, those teachers who don’t know Spanish would be moved to other classrooms or buildings as the program progressed up the grades.

No teacher would lose their job, but they could be relocated, said District Human Resources Director Brian Schimel.

Superintendent Candy Armstrong said the reality, especially for Colonel Wright, was that a program with two classrooms at each grade level would mean it involved all of Colonel Wright’s classes, since they only have two at each grade level.

“That is the entire school changing, and that’s huge and does bring a lot of anxiety for” teachers at Colonel Wright who want to finish their career there, but don’t qualify to teach dual language, she said.

The district can’t do the program without someone having to move schools, she said.

Fost has helped start four other dual language programs, and he said even in districts that already have one dual language program at one campus, people still resist the idea of starting it at another campus.

Darnall said dual immersion programs always meet resistance, because change is scary.

Board member Rebecca Thistlethwaite said the focus should be on students, and the program would help students, both the native Spanish speakers and the students who would learn Spanish. While some board members suggested waiting a year, she said the same objections would still be there a year later.

Fost agreed, saying other programs that waited a year after encountering resistance still had resistance the following year.

Darnall said she’s been in the situation of starting a new program, and “it starts just like this. Just scared, white knuckle.”

Kabakov said, “I don’t hear fear, I hear exclusion.”

Board member Dawn Rasmussen, who supports the program but feels the effort is being rushed and isn’t inclusive, did some quick polling at the meeting and learned that of the 14 teachers present, just two were happy with the process.

One teacher said, “It’s not that I’m in support or not in support. I don’t have enough information.”

Rasmussen wanted to “put the brakes” on the plan and revise the timeline. She said the teachers who would be in charge of executing the plan felt they needed more time.

Thistlethwaite argued the program was starting small. “It’s not changing an entire school, it’s one grade.”

Darnall said Hood River tried to implement a program in an entire elementary at once, but had to stop because it proved too divisive, with animosities developing between teachers in the program and those not in the program.

A survey last spring of staff heard from just 55 teachers. At the last school board meeting, some teachers from Colonel Wright said their responses would’ve been different if they’d known their school would be the site.

Board Vice Chair Jose Aparicio said staff surveying should continue, even if questions have to be revamped, since they had become out of date, according to Fost.

Fost said he’s already heard from teachers outside the district interested in jobs in the program, and teachers within the district have also expressed interest.

Asked if the process could be pushed back a year, Darnall said starting in the fall was the best timing to begin it.

There are grant monies to begin it, and the state’s Student Success Act, passed last year, will also put about $2 million a year into the district and is aimed at closing the “achievement gap” between minority students and other students.

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