Dual-language program OK’d at Amherst elementary school

  • Fort River Elementary School in Amherst. FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/16/2018 10:53:59 AM

AMHERST — The Amherst School Committee unanimously voted on Nov. 5 to approve a dual-language program in Amherst elementary schools starting next academic year. 

“I believe that this structural change will benefit our students in both the academic and non-academic arenas and aligns with our focus on social justice,” Superintendent Michael Morris said in a statement. 

Fort River Elementary School will be the home for the program. Students from other elementary schools in Amherst can still be included. A lottery giving preference to English learners who speak Spanish will be held for students outside of Fort River. Because the program will be increasing the size of the school, Morris said, there will be space for other students. 

The program will start in the 2019-2020 school year in kindergarten classrooms only. Each year after that, it will expand up a grade level until all grades through sixth have the program. 

The idea is that students will have two teachers and split their day between learning in English and in Spanish. Most Fort River grades have two classes, Morris said, and this program would create three classes — two bilingual ones and one monolingual English class — that parents can choose from.

For months, there has been discussion about the possibility of the program at the school committee. And to research it, Morris said he visited other school districts with similar programs. Anastasia Ordonez, chair of the school committee, said the program originated from the Enrollment Working Group, made up of parents, educators and community members. In 2017, the group studied the possibility of a dual-language program and then recommended it to the superintendent and school committee.

Changing demographics is a reason for the change. From 2007 to 2017, the number of Latinx students have increased by 30 percent, and the number of English language learners has increased by 35 percent in Amherst elementary schools.

Another goal is to address an achievement gap for Spanish-speaking English learners. There’s an achievement gap for Spanish-speaking English learners in the schools, Morris said, a problem that exists at the state level, too. Dual-language programs, he said, show promise in closing the gap.

“I for one am pretty jazzed up about it,” Peter Demling, school committee vice-chair, said at the Nov. 5 meeting. The school committee needs to keep a focus on the achievement gap, which can be a difficult problem to address. “So when there’s something that comes along that shows real promise for shutting the door on the achievement gap like nothing we’ve done before … I feel like we have an obligation to push the envelope in that respect.”

There are still steps that need to be taken to finalize the program. For example, the district needs to hire additional staff, work on the curriculum and get the change approved from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Morris said. 

Greta Jochem can be reached up at gjochem@gazettenet.com

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