Albany County School District No. 1 administrators hope to establish a plan this spring that will expand a dual-language immersion program through fifth grade at Indian Paintbrush and Spring Creek elementary schools.
Currently, the dual-language program runs through second grade. The district first piloted the program with kindergartners in the 2016-2017 school year.
Students enrolled in the dual-language program are instructed in Spanish for half the day and in English for the other half.
Under the current, “two-track” model, an English-speaking teacher and a Spanish-speaking teacher share two sections of students.
Since the program’s first year, the school board has approved the addition of first grade in 2017, then second grade this year.
Those decisions have been made in the spring, around the same time when parents need to apply to continue their children in the program.
The school board’s now working to implement a long-time plan this spring that would expand the program through three more grades.
However, growing the program presents some challenges.
The district generally tries to maintain class sizes of about 16 students for grades K-3. When students hit fourth grade, class sizes generally reach 20.
Currently, the district has four dual-language classes for each grade.
If the district were to keep those four classes for fourth and fifth grades, class sizes in the dual-language would shrink below district’s norms. The district would need more teachers and more classrooms.
Even if the district could afford it, Superintendent Jubal Yennie said there isn’t enough space.
That leaves him with the quandary of adapting the program for larger class sizes.
“We could also do nothing and stop this at second grade,” Yennie said. “That’s not a good option.”
At last week’s board meeting, Yennie presented a plan that would shrink the number of classes once students reach fourth grade.
At fourth grade, the two classes would collapse to one per grade at each school. Under that plan, a Spanish-speaking teacher would teach a fourth-grade class for half the day and a fifth-grade class for the other half.
The district would need to hire four more Spanish-speaking immersion teachers and convert another four traditional teachers to teacher English sections for the program to fully implement that model.
As the program has expanded each year since its inception, the district has hired two more Spanish-speaking teachers each year. However, Yennie’s been able to do that without adding more positions and without laying off staff.
“In theory, someone’s going to get bumped,” Yennie said. “In practice, that hasn’t happened.”
Fortunately, ACSD No. 1 is large enough that there’s been enough attrition and movement of teachers between classes to manage the new Spanish-speaking teachers.
The year the program was expanded to first grade, a first-grade teacher retired. The same thing happened when the program was expanded to second-grade.
Ideally, that trend will continue as the program expands to more grades.
“It’s more than a hope,” Yennie said. “We’re big enough that attrition balances it and we don’t have to have additional funding for personnel, but it’s no guarantee.”
Another challenge in expanding the program is getting enough traditional teachers in the district who are willing to convert to being English-speaking immersion teachers.
So far, that’s been the case. Teachers in the program undergo additional training each summer in Salt Lake City on teaching in an immersion program.
Now that the district’s program has a “critical mass” of teachers, Yennie’s planning to have that training conducted on site, beginning in 2019.
At last week’s school board meeting, board member Tammy Johnson expressed concern about offering the program to just a “select group of kids” at Indian Paintbrush and Spring Creek.
“It’s not that I don’t want this to go up to fifth grade, but I want this to be available to all students across the district if it’s as great as we think it is,” she said. “This is working, so why aren’t we doing it with all our kids?”
Janice Marshall, who chairs the board, said the program should remain voluntary. There might not be enough interest in the district to expand the program to all schools, she said.
Before the program was launched, the district surveyed parents to gauge the level of interest. Parents of children whose home school was Indian Paintbrush and Spring Creek expressed the most enthusiasm, Yennie said.
The program was launched at those two schools, but children anywhere in the district can still be enrolled in the program.
Currently, parents apply to enter their children into the program and students are admitted via lottery. However, all applicants were able to get into the program this year.
Board member Karen Bienz suggested there might be interest from more parents if the program were expanded to other schools. Some parents, she said, might want to have their students in the program but are unwilling to have their children bused away from their home school.
Yennie said he’d like to have the board make a decision on a model in February.