DUAL LANGUAGE PROGRAM ATTRACTS FEWER SPANISH SPEAKERS THAN HOPED

A new Spanish-English dual language program, called “Caminantes”, will welcome two classes of kindergarten students at Fort River Elementary School on September 3rd. 

English Language Learner (ELL) Coordinator for the district, Katie Richardson, presented an update on enrollment in the program to the Amherst School Committee at their first meeting of the new school year on August 20.  The hope had been to have an equal mix of Spanish-speaking/bilingual and English-speaking students in two kindergarten classes of 20 children each. Each class would spend half of each school day in the Spanish-speaking classroom and half in the adjoining English-speaking classroom. A new Kindergarten teacher was hired to teach through Spanish while a current Kindergarten teacher, Ms Felix will teach through English. Richardson reported that enrollment of Spanish-speaking children fell below the goal. Initially, 15 students whose families self-identified as Spanish-speaking enrolled, ten of whom are zoned to Fort River and five zoned to either Wildwood or Crocker Farm. Two of the 15 withdrew August 16th, leaving only 13 Spanish-speakers in the program. 

As expected, there was strong interest from English-speaking families across the district. 19 students from the Fort River zone enrolled, and three children zoned to Wildwood or Crocker Farm were admitted, for a total of 22. Richardson was unable to share information on how many Spanish-speaking kindergarten students have enrolled at Wildwood and Crocker Farm because the numbers are small.

Richardson made two recommendations to the School Committee to address the imbalance: 1) cap enrollment of English-speakers at 22, even if class sizes stay below 20 students, and 2) add an enrollment group for Spanish-speakers who were admitted through school choice. Previously, the policy had been to limit enrollment in the program to Amherst residents.

Richardson said three Spanish-speaking students that reside outside of Amherst had been admitted to the district through school choice and she asked the Committee to consider allowing them to enroll in the dual language program if they desired. With the support of Superintendent, Michael Morris, all four School Committee members voted to accept both recommendations.

School Committee Chairperson Anastasia Ordonez clarified that the decision regarding School Choice students applies only to this year and the policy will be revisited at a later date.

The Dual Language program resulted from work done after the previous elementary school building project failed in 2017. The Superintendent formed an “Enrollment Working Group” to study areas of concern and interest that had arisen, one of which was Spanish-English dual language education. The dual language subgroup presented their report to the School Committee in February 2018, and 18 months later, the program is ready to welcome the first cohort of kindergarten students.

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