Popular Bilingual Program Ends to Parents' Chagrin

GLENNS FERRY, Idaho—An innovative program to teach Spanish- and English-speaking children each other’s languages seemed to have everything going for it: happy children, happy parents and federal financial support.

But the school board voted to discontinue the program, although most of the federal funds for it remain unspent.

Superintendent Bob Fontaine said board members were concerned about grant restrictions that might prevent the hiring of instructors who don’t speak Spanish but otherwise have strong teaching qualifications.

But some critics of the decision complained that officials simply weren’t ready for the program, under which students are instructed in English for half of a school day and in Spanish for the other half.

“It was an innovative and wonderful thing,” Anita Brunner, consultant in bilingual education for the state Department of Education, said in an interview last week. “I think it is a tragedy it ended.”

“There’s a lot of sad parents right now,” said Joyce Farris, whose children attend the Glenns Ferry schools. “It’s been a real emotional thing for the community. We feel we’ve been let down and have lost respect for some people.”

The southern Idaho farming community of 1,500 people increases in size during the harvest season as migrant workers arrive to dig potatoes and pick sugar beets. In recent years, some of the migrants, many of whom speak Spanish, have settled in the area.

To help the children of migrants assimilate, a language immersion program was begun last fall for 26 kindergartners at Glenns Ferry Elementary School. About half of the students are Spanish-speaking children of migrant workers; the other half are English speakers whose parents wanted them to learn a second language.

“Learning two languages is kind of like exercising the brain,” said Carlene Smith, the school’s special services director who wrote the winning federal grant proposal for the program.

Her proposal was one of 17 grant applications approved out of 111 nationwide. “I think it’s an approach to education we’re going to see more of,” she said.

The program had a five-year federal grant of $$500,000 to hire bilingual teachers and materials. Only $$83,000 has been spent so far.

An advisory committee including Fontaine, school board members, teachers and parents reviewed the program and recommended keeping it.

But on March 14, the school board voted 3-2 to drop it at the end of this school year.

“Some of the teachers were not ready to change,” Smith said.

Close to 350 people signed a petition to keep the immersion program. One Hispanic parent filed a civil rights complaint with the state Commission on Human Rights, contending his children will lose their chance at an education without the course.

English as a Second Language has been available in the upper grades and will continue. But proponents of immersion felt that starting children in the early grades gives them a better start. English-speaking children also benefit, proponents of the program said.

Teacher Viola Fernandez, who conducts the Spanish half of the school day, says the children help one another because at any time of day half of them face a foreign vocabulary.

“Their attitude and their self-esteem are enhanced,” she said.

Farris said many parents, including herself, saw their children’s attitude about school improve with the bilingual program. Farris’ family grows potatoes and has employed Hispanics over the years to help with the field work.

“I want their children to be able to learn as our children have been able to learn,” she said.

“I think it is a tragedy it ended,” said Brunner, the state’s bilingual education consultant. “We hoped to see it duplicated across the state.”

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