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Plenty of questions on language immersion

Time is one resource that Lake Oswego School District administrators are running out of.

If they had more, then perhaps implementing a first -through fifth-grade immersion program would be within reach. But it became clear at Monday night's board meeting that the capacity of the central office staff is seriously challenged this year as it also juggles the closure of two more elementary schools and the shifting of sixth-graders into 6-8 middle schools.

'My concern is this year we may spend too much time on this topic,' said board member Patti Zebrowski. 'I don't know if I want to direct (administration) to spend more time. … People have to sleep and do other things. I really don't want to compromise Scenario B, … We don't have the resources this year to do this and do it right.'

Additionally, Superintendent Bill Korach framed the discussion around concerns that an immersion program could conflict with the approach the district is taking to the elementary closures.

'You don't affect one part here and not affect the whole,' he said. 'What kind of model can we work with without disrupting the gains that we've worked years to make as our system works?'

Jonni Shobaki, director of elementary education, explained that an immersion program could affect class ratios for the rest of the district.

'What we see in an immersion model, it will accentuate the problem relative to class sizes and the ability to balance class sizes unless you put the money in it,' said Korach.

Additionally, there could be challenges with maintaining class sizes at the higher levels and finding quality bilingual teachers.

Parent and immersion advocate Sarah Howell pointed out the Ainsworth Elementary in Southwest Portland has very little attrition, and parents are lining up at the door to get their kids in the program.

'I think many of the people in the room would say that we already have a track record of finding qualified teachers,' said Howell, who has formed an informal parent advisory committee with other interested parents.

It has been suggested that the district could prioritize hiring of bilingual teachers in preparation of implementing an immersion program, but so far the district has not advertized for bilingual teachers (see sidebar at right).

Also, since preschool and pre-K classes are currently offered at a cost to parents, the district must figure out how it can offer immersion without giving an advantage to those who can pay for early education.

Board member Bob Barman worried that the negative presentation could kill momentum that the school district already has in implementing immersion in grades 1-5.

'What I'm suggesting strongly here is that I think it's premature to come to those conclusions,' he said. 'Maybe it's not going to work this year. I want to be the cheerleader out there and say let's innovate.'

Barman along with board member Teri Oelrich are planning on visiting Minnetonka, Minn., a suburb of Min-neapolis that has implemented elementary language immersion successfully.

Since changing plans to keep a Mandarin Chinese immersion kindergarten classroom, school administrators have been working to find ways to continue language education for preschool and pre-K language students as they advance through elementary school. This August, the district also decided not to implement a Spanish immersion first grade to follow up the pre-K and kindergarten classes that it holds at Lake Grove Elementary School.

For now, the district instead has reached out to parents looking to supplement the district's regular education. Later this month, the current pre-K instructor will begin teaching an after school Mandarin class for kindergarten students, and a morning Spanish program three days a week could be an option for first graders. Both classes will be offered through the Community School for an extra cost.

Parent Laura James expressed concerns with the plan. 'It's a pay to play solution - the equity issue is there if it's pay to play,' she said.

Also, tacking an extra hour onto the day for first graders is expecting a lot from kids, she said. They have 'already gone from 3.5 hours of kindergarten to 6.5 hours of first grade … My daughter's teacher said it would be way too much.'

Shobaki explained that a committee looked at incorporating Spanish within the school day, but there just isn't time.

Though it is having a difficult time finding way to enhance elementary language education, with the shifting of sixth graders to the middle schools, the school district does plan to give more language opportunities to students at the middle level.