Thursday, April 2, 2009

Language Immersion; is it so great for our school?

This may be boring to most of the non-local readers, but I have to get my opinion out there and try to get some dialogue going. I am afraid if I do not, this will just happen without discussion and a good look into the future. I know one of my closest friends has a completely different opinion on this and is in fact moving her family to Mexico for a year so her girls can get Spanish immersion.

Language immersion is a great option for some families. If it comes to our elementary school, the 26 incoming 1st graders will benefit greatly. They will be the pilot program, so much attention will be focused on that group of 26 kids. They will have many resources available to them.

Point 1. Class Size and Attrition Rates

The other two classes of first grade students may indeed start out with a lower class size, but I believe over the next 5 years the attrition rate in the immersion class will make that class smaller. And the information that I have so far says that new students will not be admitted into the immersion program after second grade, there would be no way for the new students to catch up. So the immersion class in 3rd, 4th, and 5th continues to decline, not because of the program, but because people move, get transferred, life happens. The other two classes of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders also have attrition but because people also move into our neighborhood these spots can be filled back up. Could we also reach a maximum class size of 28 (3rd) and 29 (4th and 5th) and need to turn away students? All the while the immersion class has dropped and there is no way to fill it.

For example, let's assume the 1st grade classes look like this:
class A - traditional - 21
class B - traditional - 21
class C - immersion - 26 max class size

2nd grade has historical attrition losing 15 students. Wow, isn't that a lot? I am glad I saved every school directory for the past 6 years. All numbers I will be using are based on the current 5th grade class, showing what could very likely happen if traditional attrition rates continue. Even though we lost 15 students, we gained 11.

2nd grade
class A - traditional - 21-5=16+3=19
class B - traditional - 21-5=16+2=18
class C - immersion - 26-5=21+6=27 max class size

Keep in mind if students can still choice in in second grade, the number of Foothills families in class C will decrease from attrition and can be replaced with choice students skewing my class A and B class size numbers.

From 2nd grade to 3rd grade we lost 7 and gained 11

3rd grade
class A - traditional 19-3=16+5=20
class B - traditional 18-2=16+6=21
class C - immersion 27-2=25 (Max of 28, but no more admitted)

3rd to 4th we lost 14 and gained 11. Keep in mind 8 went to School in the Woods for 4th grade. Hope they had fun, can't get back into immersion after that year off.

4th grade
class A - traditional 20-5=15+5=20
class B - traditional 20-5=15+6=21
class C - immersion 25-4=21 (max of 29)

from 4th to 5th grade we lost 4 and gained 14, welcome back to our 8 School in the Woods kids.

5th grade
class A - traditional 20-1=19+7=28
class B - traditional 21-1=19=7=28
class C - immersion 21-2=19 (max of 29)

Well, that looks fair. This model is as accurate as the class lists from each school directory published in October and does not account for students that start after that date and do not return the following year.

This model also does not account for any families that start the immersion program and drop out after the deadline for admittance. This model also does not account for a large surge of immersion choice applications, this is historical date from the past 6 years.

I did speak with the principal of the local school in our district that offers immersion. She made many positive points for it and said the students not in immersion even benefit from the language being used around the school. A few items she mentioned were alarming to me.
1. Their school is 50% choice and 50% neighborhood.
2. Only 5 seats per grade level (remember they have 2 immersion classes) are held for neighborhood kids going into immersion, the rest is a lottery.
3. They have 4 classes per grade level, 2 immersion and 2 traditional, the traditional classes are maxed out and the immersion classes have approx 5 open spots. They do not fill the immersion spots after Labor Day of second grade unless the child can test into the program. Few can.

I think it is important to note that even if you are in favor of the immersion, there is no guarantee your child will be granted access to the program, only a few current students will be enrolled. If our goal is to grow the school, we can't fill the immersion class up with current students/families, we need new bodies. See point 3 for another attrition breakdown based on accepting 14 choice students in 1st grade.

Point 2.

Our school is already a magnet school for CSD kids. I love the program we have available for the autistic kids. I believe it makes our peer children more accepting, patient and caring. I have noticed this with my own boys and am so happy they have had the opportunity to mentor and assist in any small way with the CSD program.

Having said that, we are already short on educational PARAs to assist with the CSD kids. Limiting the CSD kids to two classes per grade level will certainly be a bit more distracting for everyday teaching in the traditional classrooms and may even force them to stay in the CSD room more. This would not be a benefit to out peer students or or CSD students.

Point 3.

How many students can we really add?

Let's assume we take the model school's example and hold 5 seats (although we only have 1 class where they hold 5 seats for 2 classes) for community students and choice in 21 students. Assume again 4 more current families are lucky enough to get in with the lottery, we can add 17 new choice students.

Let's revise our class attrition model:
1st grade

class A - traditional - 21 (plus 8 students who didn't get in class C)=29
class B - traditional - 21 (plus 7 students who didn't get in class C)=28
class C - immersion - 26 max class size including 17 choice students

Ok, so we are over already. So let's assume we "make room" for 5 additional current students who didn't get into class C and reduce the amount of choice we accept, by 5.
5 original spots held + 4 that won the lottery + 5 that would have been sent to another school = 14 current families out of 68 kindergarten families. Do you like those odds? This arrangement leaves room for 12 choice students.

New first grade with 12 choice students in immersion and filling every other 1st grade spot with current families. I hope no one moves into our neighborhood over the summer, we are full.

class A - traditional - 26
class B - traditional - 26
class C - immersion - 26 max class size including 12 choice students

In our example year we lost 15 1st grade students and gained 11. We have maxed out the immersion class and have a few spots left for new students.

2nd grade
class A - traditional - 26-5=21+3=24
class B - traditional - 26-5=21+2=23
class C - immersion - 26-5=21+6=27 max class size

Keep in mind if students can still choice in in second grade, the number of Foothills families in class C will decrease from attrition and can be replaced with choice students skewing my class A and B class size numbers.

From 2nd grade to 3rd grade we lost 7 and gained 11

3rd grade
class A - traditional 24-3=21+5=26
class B - traditional 23-2=21+6=27
class C - immersion 27-2=25 (Max of 28, but no more admitted)

3rd to 4th we lost 14 and gained 11. Keep in mind 8 went to School in the Woods for 4th grade. Hope they had fun, can't get back into immersion after that year off.

4th grade
class A - traditional 26-5=21+5=26
class B - traditional 27-5=22+6=28
class C - immersion 25-4=21 (max of 29)

From 4th to 5th grade we lost 4 and gained 14, welcome back to our 8 School in the Woods kids, oops sorry, no room for you to come back.

5th grade
class A - traditional 26-1=25+7=32 (max is 29)
class B - traditional 27-1=28+7=35 (max is 29)
class C - immersion 21-2=19 (max of 29)

We end up turning away 9 kids, I hope we saved spots for our returning School in the Woods kids, but it doesn't look like it.

In our revised model we gained 12 choice students in 1st grade and turned away 9 kids from 5th grade. For a gain of 3 students.

If we consider adding 12 choice kids per year, our upper grades will max out and neighborhood kids will not be admitted.

I guess my big question is, do we want to be a neighborhood school with a focus that includes everyone or a magnet school that turns away neighborhood families? Is it worth it to add those 3 kids per year?

Point 4.

Is there a focus we can look into that can benefit ALL of the students and grow EVERY grade level?

One idea that has been tossed around is a Science and Arts Academy. Integrating science and art into the classroom, focusing on environmental issues, building a greenhouse and a community garden. Teaching ALL of our kids to be better citizens. Instituting lifelong learning through direct interaction with science and art and our environment. These kids would have a deep appreciation for the world, a commitment to making it better.

The possibilities are endless!

There would be no need to cap the enrollment at 2nd grade.

There would be no need to displace current teachers.

There would be no students turned away unless all of our classes were full. Now wouldn't that be a great predicament to be in?

If we found a broader focus that benefits every student we would get all of the current parents involved to take a part, help plan and execute the idea. Instead many of those parents figure "my child is going into 2nd grade (3rd, 4th or 5th), this doesn't affect me." Why not find a focus to ignite their enthusiasm?

I do believe language immersion is a wonderful concept and would no doubt benefit that group of kids, but is that what is in the best interest of all of our students? And if you support language immersion, great, I hope you are one of the 9 families (estimation, maybe 14) out of 68 kindergarten families that get accepted to the program, but in case you aren't, wouldn't you have rather had a school focus that was beneficial every child?

Perhaps you already know that you would not try to put your student in the immersion program so you are holding back from having an opinion on the idea, think about this, how would you like your student to be packed in a FULL 5th grade class when the other class has 10 openings? And in your FULL class, you have 2 CSD kids with 1 PARA and the class seems a bit distracted and hard to manage, will you still refrain from voicing your opinion?

And what if your child went to School in the Woods for 4th grade and there was not a spot to return to for 5th grade, would you have an opinion then?

We are changing the entire model of the school to enroll 12 choice students and hope they last through 5th grade.

In our model class (from my stack of directories) that started 68 kids as 1st graders five years ago, only 42 of those original kids are now finishing 5th grade. If a third of those were in language immersion (23) only 14 kids would be in language immersion as 5th graders. What would the other 5th grade classes look like?

Wouldn't changing the direction of the school in a way that would benefit ALL students be a better option? Why limit ourselves to only admitting kids until 2nd grade? A broader school-wide focus could bring in MANY more students to EVERY GRADE, EVERY YEAR. Why aren't we looking at other options?


stacie said...

You are a rock star. Thanks for the wonderful comments about the benefits for ALL learners havaing the CSD program there. I love the environmental issues model....feels a little like the influence of School in the Woods, love that place.....You go girl!

3boys247 said...

Ben just brought up a good point. You better decide before you sign up for immersion at the end of kindergarten if you would like your child to go into the lottery for a spot in School in the Woods in 4th grade. Why so early? Well, if you choose immersion, you will not get back in for 5th grade and if you choose traditional, there may not be a spot left for you if the other classes are filled up. You may be at a completely different school for 5th grade.

Hillary Dickman said...

Oh, THIS is why you emailed me asking if we can still be friends! Yes, we can still be friends...but we do have different (of course) opinions.

I would hope that fifth graders could test back into immersion after school in the woods. With some tutoring kids shouldn't lose their bilingual abilities in only one year. If they did lose the ability it's because they didn't practice and they didn't really care about maintaining the ability.

It's just hard for me to believe that, considering how well the immersion program has worked at Academy Int'l, there would be as many issues as you are suggesting -- those seem to be worst-case scenarios. Yes, it would change the face of Foothills, but sometimes change moves us forward in a good direction.

And the benefits of second language learning are so spectacular it's almost impossible to underestimate the benefits for the kids in the immersion program -- think re-wiring of the brain, beneficial. Similar to the effects of learning to play an instrument, only more profound and available to the tone-deaf and rhythmless.

I'd be in favor of it whether my kids are able to get in or not. Once my kids return from their year abroad, they'll already be fluent so they will benefit from having other fluent kids around with whom they can speak, and all of the fluent teachers.

If I had my choice, though...Foothills would be going Cantonese immersion. It's going to be invaluable by the time our kiddos are out of college. Spanish as a language is not quite the same. But still good for their growing brains.