School Beat: Immersion Programs and Student Assignment

by Eos de Feminis & Renee Tan on September 16, 2010

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) currently offers four different language immersion programs at 14 elementary schools throughout the city. When the students from eleven of those programs graduate (two of these programs are K-8), many parents are expecting that their children will continue onto middle school in these programs. While historically there have been issues of availability at the secondary level, the draft Student Assignment Redesign proposal has left the immersion community atwitter for several other reasons as well. Up until now …

Immersion programs have become increasingly popular and SFUSD has responded to this need. In the last five years, Flynn added a Spanish Immersion strand, Fairmount converted all classrooms to Spanish immersion, the first Mandarin Immersion program launched at Starr King Elementary, a second Mandarin Immersion site started at Jose Ortega, a Spanish Immersion started at Daniel Webster, and a Cantonese Immersion program started at Chinese Immersion School at DeAvila. Just with those programs, the projected demand for immersion continuation at the middle school level will continue to grow for SFUSD.

Significantly, the 2010-2011 school year marked the first year that the district guaranteed slots for all graduating 5th graders in immersion programs. SFUSD was able to accomplish this with a dual strategy — it added more slots at Hoover for Spanish and Chinese immersion and it also added a Spanish Immersion program at an additional site- Everett.

Historically, the Program Placement Department (in conjunction with the Multilingual Department) was responsible for placing new programs at schools. There was a prevailing guiding principle used to determine where to launch new programs, though a myriad of other factors determine final placement selection. This principle was that SFUSD did not want to displace students or teachers when looking for a home for a new program. This was part of the thought process when opening the Mandarin Immersion programs, the new Cantonese Immersion program, and the additional Spanish Immersion Middle School program at Everett. In fact, parents from both Mandarin Immersion programs had been working with the Multilingual Department for more than the past year to start this dialogue about Mandarin Immersion Middle School, even though the first set of students will not enter middle school until 2012.

What we expected and what happened

When the proposed new assignment plan was released a few weeks ago, many in the immersion community were surprised. Because of the discussions that parents have been having with the Multi-lingual/ World Languages department, we had expected to see a more simple and direct approach: keep immersion focused on a handful of middle schools and expand as demand requires it. That, however, is not what the proposal does. The current proposal feeds elementary schools into middle school by proximity, and places programs in middle schools to support what was at the elementary school rather than looking to build the program first.

Though the good news is that every immersion student will be guaranteed an immersion seat at the middle school level, successful implementation seemed to have been an afterthought. For Spanish Immersion students, for example, the new system would mean phasing out the oldest Spanish Immersion program at Hoover and simultaneously implementing programs at three new sites in 2011 (Denman, ISA, and Mann). For Mandarin Immersion, it will mean opening two different sites (Mann and Aptos) in two consecutive years, which (based on current enrollment of both programs) will serve less than 60 students per grade level until 2015. For the Cantonese Immersion program, there will be two sites, which five years from now will serve only 40-60 students each.

The result is that the resources are being diluted (finding properly credentialed qualified teachers is still an issue along with proper books and other supplementary stuff), programs are proposed to be started in schools that are not ready and some of the middle schools’ immersion programs would be very small. Denman’s principal has told parents that her school is not ready for an SIP next year, Everett’s principal was very surprised to hear that his school wasn’t going to expand SIP (getting only Marshall’s students) and Hoover’s principal did not know that their program was going to be phased out after they had just expanded. The district’s own multi-lingual department stated that the current proposal is not what they had recommended.

What now

Lots of discussions have been going on in the parent community about how to handle this proposal in regards to immersion programming in middle school. Some immersion elementary schools have surveyed their parents and come up with “statements”. Some have had meetings with the District’s assignment group directly to voice their concerns. SF-AME, a parent group advocating for multi-lingual education, gathered parent representatives from several different schools to gather common threads and presented those to the district’s assignment people earlier this week. While not everyone is exactly on the same page, there seems to be general agreement on the following items:

* the current proposal is unnecessarily diluting scarce resources at the middle school level

* the speed of the current middle school expansion plan is undesirable and unachievable as well as potentially in conflict with the board’s own policy

So what do immersion parents recommend the district do instead? There are a couple of different proposals being circulated and presented to the district. At the least, it seems that we are asking the district consider immersion programming separately because it has additional requirements (such as language trained teachers). The current assignment proposal already designates full immersion elementary schools as “city-wide,”, acknowledging there are special considerations for such programs. That alone does not make it incompatible with a feeder system and several different approaches could allow for assigned middle schools AND a separate system for immersion programs.

As parents who both have kids in immersion programs at the elementary as well as the middle school level, we feel that the space for discussion created by the assignment proposal will, in the end, be positive for the immersion community. This is probably the first time that so many people have talked about what immersion looks like at the middle school level, the first time middle school principals have been directly involved with the parent community about their concerns, and the first time that the district has heard en masse from parents about these programs.

And it seems our concerns have been heard. As of 9/13/2010, the student assignment committee is recommending a delay of implementation of the middle school feeder patterns for one year. It will be business as usual for those continuing to middle school. At the 9/13 Board meeting, it was stated that the district would have enough Spanish Immersion seats available for those students who wished to continue at the middle school level. At minimum, that means continuing the program at Hoover for at least one more year.

Unless the Board of Education completely ignores their own multi-lingual department’s voices together with the parents’ voices, we believe they will come up with a generally agreeable solution in the end. So stay tuned and stay involved.

Eos de Feminis is the mother of one child in the Spanish Immersion Program at Everett Middle School. Renee Tan is a parent to two children attending Starr King Elementary School’s Mandarin Immersion program. Her son will be in the first class of students to attend a mandarin immersion middle school program when it is needed in 2012.

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