A recent decision by Gilbert Public Schools to eliminate one of its dual-language elementary classes has drawn the ire of parents concerned about the inopportune timing and the future of the program.
The program, which has been in operation for more than 15 years at Gilbert Elementary School, teaches students in both Spanish and English and is offered through fifth grade at the campus. At a curriculum meeting on Aug. 20, school principal Ray Mercado told parents the school would close down the kindergarten class it offers for the current school year and effective after Aug. 23.
Parents were given two days to decide if they wanted to send their students to another school or join one of the three remaining kindergarten classes at the school, none of which offer the dual-language program.
“I hate collapsing; that’s one of the hardest things we have to do,” said assistant superintendent Jeff Filloon at a special meeting on Aug. 22.
The district’s governing board was not involved in the decision to close the kindergarten class.
During the meeting held at Gilbert Elementary, Filloon told parents the decision to close the kindergarten class came from the class’ 15-student enrollment — eight students below the 23 he said the district aims for in a kindergarten class.
“We can’t run it at 15,” said interim superintendent Jack Keegan.
None of the other classes are at the 23-student level, which Mercado attributed in part to an overall decline in the school’s enrollment figures. Cutting the dual-language class this year, Filloon said, would bring the other three classes to 25 students for the two regular classes and 23 for the immersion class.
The approximately 35 parents who attended the meeting on Thursday evening were upset with the closure — the district administrators vowed to reconsider the decision — and criticized it for closing the kindergarten class on such late notice.
“If they knew there was low-enrollment, than why put us through the first two week of school?” asked parent Mina Martinez in an interview prior to the meeting. She added she was “disgusted” with how the district handled the decision.
At the meeting, Filloon said estimates from July 31 indicated the class would have met the 23-student minimum, but the enrollment dropped to 17 when the school year started and to 15 shortly thereafter. Keegan said the district didn’t know for sure until Aug. 19, and said the district staff “held off until the end” to make the decision.
There were additional students who applied for the kindergarten class, but Mercado said the school turned them away because of concerns they could not keep up with the rigorous coursework, which he said would be detrimental to the “fidelity of the program.”
“The program is not for every child,” he said.
The decrease in enrollment isn’t limited to the kindergarten level, as Keegan said the numbers have dropped for the dual-language program over the last three years.
“There probably should have been a conversation four years ago,” Filloon said.
Another issue the parents took umbrage with was the lack of advertising with the program, as some admitted they weren’t aware of the existence of the dual-language program until after they began to enroll their children at Gilbert Elementary. That included the school’s website, which does not mention the program specifically, although it does link to a district website that has information about it as part of the English Language Learning, or ELL, program.
The administrators conceded the district can do a better job promoting the dual-language program, but put much of the responsibility to do so on the parents.
“Next year there has to be some advertising for us, but the parents have to be pushing the program,” Keegan said.
The parents emphasized the lack of promotion by the district had a direct effect on the low enrollment numbers and the program’s lack of popularity, which comes in contrast to the popularity of the dual-language program at other schools in the Valley. Keller Elementary School, which has had a dual-language program since 2005, has a wait list for the kindergarten program, and an employee of the school said it has had one for several years.
Due in part to the wait list at other schools, parents of 10 of the 15 students in the kindergarten class do not live in the school’s boundary and drive their children to the school every day. One parent, Sara Cramer, said she drives two hours from her home in Mesa to enroll her child in the program.
“This is a plan set up for our children for four, five, six years, and now it’s been pulled from our feet,” she said.
Her support, along with those of several parents, stems from the long-term benefits of a dual-language program. Mesa Community College teacher and dual-language parent Karen Guerrero said those programs will benefit students as they enter the job market. Guerrero’s colleague and fellow parent Tawn Hauptl added it provides her daughter, who is a fifth grader in the program, with an intellectual stimulation she might not receive in a regular classroom.
“This program has been a valuable challenge,” she said.
But the overriding concern among the parents at the meeting was a fear the chopping of the kindergarten program is the first step toward eliminating the dual-language program at Gilbert Elementary.
“I don’t want them to close the program,” said Corina Bair, who has had children go through the program from kindergarten through grade five.
None of the other dual-language classes will close this year, and the district administrators at the meeting said they’ll continue to evaluate the enrollment numbers this year before making a decision either way. Filloon, however, said the district will “do what it takes to support the program.”
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