Sixth Grade Dual Immersion controversy shows gulf still wide for both sides
On many levels, Mammoth Unified School District’s Board of Education can be said to be doing a sound job keeping the district on track. It’s weathered budget cuts, administrative retirements and job changes, as well as two superintendents in just the past few years. Yet, it’s not without controversy, as a packed room of parents illustrated at the Board’s regular meeting on May 27. It seems that Dual Immersion (DI), the English-Spanish educational track, a source of a substantial rift between many parents and teachers, is back in the line of fire once again.
This latest debate was generated by the May 25 announcement by the district that Dual Immersion would be added to the sixth grade, but not on a full-time, regular curriculum basis. It will be brought forward as two-day per week, after-school program. (The program will advance from K-3 to K-5 next school year, though grade 5 implementation was originally to have happened this past school year.)
Board member Jack Farrell, who chaired the May 27 meeting, said from the outset that the BOE has “met with the public, read the e-mails and heard the phone messages,” in an apparent attempt to limit the expressions of discontent. Most parents in the room withheld their comment, preferring to let limited speakers have their say.
Jorie Gubser told the Board she grew up overseas and has “lots of foreign language study experience,” but suggested the current K-5 format is “not a global study program,” but rather a “limited program with no real foresight.” She indicated that the DI framework is somewhat “discriminatory.” Bilingual education is, she added, “essential for grades K-12, not just a select few.”
Kristy Williams, a DI advocacy group member, said she thinks there’s been a “systemic problem,” criticizing the Board for what she called a serious lack of leadership. “The only direction the Board has given us is ‘work with the administration.’ Well, we tried it your way and it hasn’t worked,” Williams said. “You didn’t do your part by providing steady leadership.”
Williams further suggested the Board direct the administration and educators to review DI, verse themselves on “best practices” and come up with a solution. Strong English and Spanish tracks are, she said, “solid ideas,” but shouldn’t be accomplished at the expense of DI.
“There are 34 bilingual students ready to embrace Middle School, but apparently the Middle School isn’t ready to embrace them,” she observed.
Teacher Natalie Feeney, whose fifth grade daughter Anya said in comments of her own that “It’s unfair I might not have Spanish next year,” said the parents should be arguing one program over another. She emphasized that children stand to benefit from DI. “One glaring problem: many students are not FEP (Fluent English Proficient),” she pointed out. “A lot of frustration isn’t necessarily directed at you [this Board] in particular … many of you weren’t seated when these decisions were first made.”
Parent Lynn Need, also a DI advocacy group member, said she’s just plain exhausted. “We’ve worked tirelessly just to have what we were promised, but after three years and two superintendents, I’m exhausted,” Need stated. “It’s been a very frustrating process. There’s been some improvement … fifth grade will get DI implemented next year, but not this year as promised.” She also echoed the perceived lack of leadership, saying the modus operandi seems to be “start something, put band-aids on it, then manage it by vacillating.”
Erin LeFrancois thanked the Board for “taking this beating especially after deferring your pay.” She also urged parents to keep their eye on the ball and work together to solve the various DI problems. “We can’t keep having the same fight,” LeFrancois said.
Chris Thompson delivered an eloquent, very impassioned case in support of a 6th grade track, calling DI a “shining example of how educational policy can be implemented.” Thompson went on to cite everything from DI’s contributions to bilingualism and what he said were improved test scores in both Spanish and English. He called the two-day after-school concept “pathetic.”
“We can decide not to carry DI to the 6th Grade, but we shouldn’t do it by ‘reallocation of money and resources [aka teachers].’ It doesn’t use anything we don’t already have,” Thompson posited. He also opined that without a more continuous program, kids in college are more likely not to follow through with their Spanish language studies, and took issue with assertions that DI is “coddling” non-English speaking students. “It’s not delaying integration, it’s accelerating it,” he stated.
Not everyone was in support of bringing the sixth grade into the mainstream curriculum. Terri Wolfe with Mammoth’s Parent Teacher Organization said she supports DI, but K-5 only. She questioned the costs associated with a sixth grade level track. (One of those costs could mean eliminating one teacher position to open up space for a DI-certificated instructor.)
“Kids love Mammoth Middle School. It’s a California Distinguished School and deserves every bit of that recognition,” Wolfe said, “but until we can fix the Elementary School problems and properly evaluate the DI program, there should be no DI at MMS.”
A scathing criticism of DI came from Antonette Ciccarelli, who said in her opinion, “we need math, science, arts, but it’s not the district’s responsibility to teach Spanish.” She cautioned that the DI advocacy is “seeking too much power,” and will dictate how things will be done if they get everything they want. “You’ll have this same fight on your hands in 7th, 8th, 9th grades … all the way up through 12th,” she warned.
David Bassler, while admittedly neither for nor against DI, said he wants to see some hard data before making up his mind. “We’ve heard that test scores are better; well they’re not really better. Where’s the data?” he asked. “We just don’t know.” Bassler said DI should be evaluated based on test scores and fluency and parents should be able to review the actual results. Another problem he cited was one of logistics. “How can you level math, for instance, if you have to teach half the time in Spanish?”
Connie Moyer recommended agendizing the sixth grade DI implementation issue, but questioned the “lateness of the conversation.” Kathy Cage was also a bit wary of agendizing the item in the near term, saying she thought that trying to sort out the problems with DI was “a lot to ask for in such a short time before the end of the school year.” In any case, America Hernandez offered her services to help with any needed outreach to the Hispanic community.
Feeney said a consultant is due to visit the district in the next week or so to study the situation. Meanwhile, the Board and Interim Superintendent Dr. Rich McAteer offered no response to any suggestions or accusations, only saying they were unable to act on the item, since it wasn’t a formal agenda item.
A suggestion they did take was one urging action (or at least a more formal discussion) sooner rather than later. The Board opted to agendize the item for more in-depth discussion during its June 24 meeting.