Shoreline task force still lacks insight on program

11/27/2013

Parents and administrators in the Shoreline Unified School District are anxiously awaiting recommendations from an advisory panel about the feasibility of a bilingual language immersion
program. The task force, whose grant from First 5 Marin runs out next month, was convened in August 2012 in response to growing concern about how to better serve Spanish-speaking students. 

But the panel’s findings have been pushed back months behind schedule, leading to confusion about possible implementation. This month a survey to find eligible families was distributed throughout the district, with results expected in January.

If dual immersion is recommended by the task force and implemented by the school board, kindergartners and first grade students could opt-in for classes taught almost entirely in Spanish, with additional English instruction added each year until fifth grade, when class time would be split evenly between the languages.

Families on both sides of the debate have expressed unease at the task force’s delay. Critics worry a comprehensive study of the costs and benefits for the district will not be completed, while supporters fear another school year will begin with little progress made.

Alex Porrata, a task force member, hoped her daughter would attend Shoreline last year, but without a dual immersion program, she sent her child to Loma Vista Immersion Academy in Petaluma instead.

“I absolutely value bilingualism, so much that I’m willing to drive to Petaluma twice a day to make sure that my daughter will be prepared for the 21st century,” she said. “Not only will she have the language skills, but the cross-cultural understanding to go in and out of multiple cultures with ease.”

So far, Ms. Porrata and the other members have used the roughly $20,000 grant from First 5, a government agency that distributes funds from a state tobacco tax, to organize movie screenings and talks with experts, send a teacher to a conference in San Diego and offer scholarships for Colors of Spanish, a program of music and games to increase school readiness.

But few of the time limits from the original plan have been met. A feasibility study reviewing demographics, available classroom space and teaching staff was planned for January 2013, and a survey of parent interest the following month.

The feasibility study has not been undertaken, and task force members say that obligation will now fall on school administrators (Ms. Porrata said administrators did not want to complete the study if there was not enough demonstrated interest.) 

A preliminary study was conducted earlier this year to gauge what parents thought about the level of Spanish instruction, but the survey’s seven multiple-choice questions did not mention an immersion program and failed to adequately measure real interest in the program or the number of children
eligible.

The trustees are hoping this month’s survey will provide a better picture of the district’s needs and capabilities. 

“There needs to be more input from the stakeholders before moving forward,” said Tim Kehoe, the school board president.

While many have expressed admiration for the plan in theory, some have worried the language program would not translate well for Shoreline schools, and without answers, confusion over the program’s possible implementation has led to concerns from parents.

One of these is Heidi Koenig, the mother of a fifth-grader at West Marin School and relative to an incoming kindergartner. She is unsure about the available choices for those who don’t want to participate, whether the teaching staff will change and how the program will affect children who begin after first grade or leave before fifth.

“Some of my questions may have easy answers, others may not,” Ms. Koenig said, adding that she has tried to attend as many school board meetings as possible to find out if any of her questions have been answered. “None have been so far,” she said.

Kegan Stedwell, the task force chair, took the blame for the confusion. Outreach is a full-time job for which the volunteer members of the panel have struggled to find time, she said. “This effort deserves my full attention, which I cannot give,” Ms. Stedwell said.

The task force began its work amidst demographic shifts at Shoreline. Latino students now make up a majority of the student body, and nearly half—49.5 percent—are English language learners. Yet Hispanic students have consistently underperformed their white counterparts on state tests in a gap that actually widened during the last two school years.

“The task force came into being to look at alternative ways that we might help the children who are underserved, where we’re not meeting their needs,” Ms. Stedwell said. The district has a unique opportunity to benefit from the population’s diversity, because a 50-50 split is the “magic number” for a dual immersion program. With a “progressive” approach and “new modality of teaching techniques,” the district could also stem or even reverse trends of declining enrollment, she added.

The plan wouldn’t only benefit Spanish speakers, advocates say. Shoreline’s current methods of teaching Spanish provide children with some acquisition and a good understanding of Latino culture,  Ms. Porrata said. In the first survey by the task force, 45 percent said they wanted more Spanish instruction.

Lazuli Whitt decided to get involved with the task force after she noticed her third-grade son at West Marin was losing the Spanish language he had learned from his caretaker. Although it is too late for him to join a program, she hopes by the time her younger son enters kindergarten next year, Shoreline will have an immersion program.

“I’ve worked very hard at learning Spanish and I still can’t read or write that well. It’s a hindrance living in this community,” she said. “To really learn a language you have to be immersed in it.”

But others have questioned whether a program would succeed in such a small district. With some classes limited to 10 or 15 students, dividing a classroom between regular and immersion programs may not be practical or cost-effective.

“If you have at least 1,000 [enrolled], you can draw from all of those students to find a group of highly motivated kids, and even then it can be a struggle,” said Matt Nagle, the principal of West Marin and Inverness Elementary Schools.

The district presents problems unique to our rural environment, he said. If there were enough interest in immersion at Shoreline, it would likely mean busing students across a huge distance in a district that reaches from Point Reyes Station to Sonoma County. And bringing qualified instructors who can teach multiple subjects in a second language will be difficult when the district already struggles to fill and retain its staff, Mr. Nagle said.

The immersion program also requires at least five years, which some students may not be able to commit to, said Donna Faure, the president of the Parent Teacher Association at West Marin. With unstable employment at a ranch or temporary residency at a Coast Guard station, a family who leaves the district and can’t move to another immersion program will suffer. 

Ms. Faure, whose son is in sixth grade, said another parent told her she can’t even commit to a two-year phone plan, let alone an education program through high school.

“Who would benefit? I’m really sorry to say this to you: I really don’t know,” said Mr. Nagle, who also sits on the task force. “We’re hoping to learn something from the surveys.”

Some others who have criticized the immersion program’s applicability worry about how the task force will present its findings, since a few members of the panel have also advocated for the program.

“A task force is a fairly neutral way to research the pros and cons,” Ms. Faure said. “That’s all I’m looking for. The idea is interesting, but it needs to stand on its own two feet.”

Task force members have tried to reassure the public that the process will be fair and based on research. Whatever recommendations end up before the board will be based on the interests of Shoreline students and will be thoroughly vetted by trustees before any measure is approved—whether immersion, more Spanish instruction, or simply keeping things as they are, said Sandy Kaplan, a teacher and panelist.

“It’s a process,” Ms. Kaplan said. “Hang in there, and we’ll have a report shortly.”