Parents ready to fight for Spanish Immersion

Date Published: 
May 19, 2017

[Editor's Note: This article was amended May 19 to reflect the addition of "Spanish Immersion" to the school board's May 22 meeting agenda.]

Parents are lining up to defend the Spanish Immersion program against potential budget cuts in the Indian River School District. Expect signs. Expect small children making speeches in multiple languages. Expect a full 30 minutes of public comments at the school board meeting on May 22, at 7 p.m. at Indian River High School.

The school board has promised to review the entire budget, line by line. But some district parents were very upset to see elementary-school Spanish Immersion listed as a possible area for budget cuts, which have also roused concern about potential cuts to teachers’ extracurricular pay and paraprofessional jobs.

Spanish Immersion began in the 2012-2013 school year at John M. Clayton Elementary School and in 2013-2014 at East Millsboro Elementary School. Students began the program each year in kindergarten, and the oldest groups of those students are now finishing their fourth- and third-grade years, respectively.

The children learn for half the day exclusively in Spanish and half in English. The goal is to teach children a new language by completely immersing them in it.

But Spanish Immersion currently requires the district to hire new Spanish teachers every year, as students age through the system and require teachers who can teach higher-grade-level material in Spanish. That’s hard to balance with other educators who may not have a job next year. Selbyville Middle School is also supposed to begin teacher training to anticipate the upcoming class.

But the school board could cut the program or stop admitting new kindergarten students. IRSD Superintendent Mark Steele said he will fight for the program if the school board broaches the subject on May 22.

“Next Monday night, we’re going to know one way or the other,” Steele told a concerned group of parents on May 16. “I hope this turns out to be a non-issue Monday night.”

“Spanish immersion” was added to the May 22 agenda, which had already included “Budget/Programs,” which the board has typically delayed until executive session, although state code requires most discussion of public money to occur in open session.

Spanish Immersion was discussed around 11:30 p.m. during the executive session of the May 8 board meeting. Board President Charles Bireley has repeatedly said that budget cuts are being discussed away from the public because people may lose their jobs, and names have been mentioned. State law prohibits public discussion of “personnel matters in which the names, competency and abilities of individual employees or students are discussed, unless the employee or student requests that such a meeting be open.”

Parents said they love this program, which is open to native English or native Spanish speakers. The program is lauded among educators, and students appear to be performing at or above grade level.

“Nobody wants to cut one program,” said Steele, whose own daughter is a JMC Spanish Immersion partner teacher.

The problem is finances. Statewide, districts are reeling from the Gov. John Carney’s proposal to cut Education Sustainment funds, which equals $2 million for IRSD. Having passed a current-expense referendum to increase local property tax revenues for the district, IRSD officials had only expected $1.5 million in cuts, not $3.5 million.

The Delaware General Assembly will make the final decision, and the IRSD administrators are begging the public to contact their local legislators to have the funding replaced in the 2018-fiscal-year budget, likely to be approved June 30.

But they could also approve the cuts and allow a match tax, which permits school boards to raise taxes without referendum. School district officials have chafed at the potential burden of raising taxes further to fill the state’s deficit.

The IRSD board has already voted to cut four of five Project Village early-learning sites, as well as leave empty administrator positions at the district’s central office. Steele himself is eligible for two assistant superintendents, but both positions now remain empty.

The board didn’t act before the May 15 deadline to notify teachers of cuts to their positions, so that means finding another road forward to a balanced budget.

“We would have eliminated almost 70 positions if we had gone that way,” Steele said — something he had proposed but not wanted. “The relief was unbelievable on my end” when the board didn’t pursue that action, he said.

Although they can’t let teachers go to balance the coming year’s budget, the board can still leave empty positions open.

After hearing that some board members have allegedly never visited an immersion classroom (How can you cut a program when you haven’t seen it in action? one parent argued), Steele said he will encourage the board to tour the classrooms before the Monday meeting.

“Anyone can talk to a board member, but keep in mind: this last year has been tough,” Steele said. “If you’re going to the board Monday night, bring out all the positive points of the program.”

Board members, he said, are exhausted, between budget decisions, two referendum votes (the first one unsuccessful) and last year’s ousting of the district’s chief financial officer over allegations of mishandled finances.

Since he became superintendent in January, Steele has worked almost nonstop on the referendum and addressing the governor’s proposed budget. If the IRSD can just get through this coming school year, they can start rebuilding reserves in 2018-2019 and be “rock solid” in about three years, Steele said.

The parents still have much to do to defend the program. They quickly organized this week by email and social media. But they were hampered by the district prohibitions on dispersing fliers in schools, and most of the Spanish-speaking families appeared to be absent from the meeting.

Parents did ask about the possibility of paying tuition or school-choicing out of IRSD to access language immersion programs. This year, about 22 Delaware schools housed immersion programs affiliated with former Gov. Jack Markell’s World Language Expansion Initiative. Milford and Seaford have Sussex County’s other Spanish programs, among more than a dozen statewide. (Five New Castle County schools have a Chinese-language immersion program instead.)

Program details are online at www.irsd.net/academics/spanish_immersion.