Dual-language program gains traction in Amherst

  • Fort River Elementary School

Staff Writer
Published: 8/15/2018 12:39:12 AM

AMHERST — A dual-language program is moving closer to reality in Amherst, where the School Committee on Tuesday discussed potential options ahead of a proposed 2019 rollout.

Superintendent Michael Morris presented possible scenarios for the makeup of the program, which would likely create two Spanish-language classrooms at Fort River Elementary.

In addition to that presentation, the School Committee discussed air-quality surveys taken at Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools and potential regionalization with Pelham.

Tuesday’s presentation from Morris laid out several possible scenarios for how the dual-language program would be created, and where students would be drawn from.

A central question in considering different options is ensuring that a sufficient percentage of students in each Spanish-language classroom has a degree of proficiency in that language.

A little more than 10 percent of students across the district speak Spanish as a first language, and an unknown number of students speak the language with some lesser degree of proficiency. The goal would be that a third of each dual-language classroom would have some degree of proficiency.

One option for the program would be to have students attend their current neighborhood school, with a lottery system bringing enough Spanish-speaking students to Fort River from Wildwood and Crocker Farm in order to have an appropriate concentration of those students in the dual-language classrooms. Then, other students could be brought in via the lottery to fill the remaining dual-language seats.

A second model would change the district’s enrollment zones, potentially increasing the number of students going to Fort River while decreasing the amount of students at Crocker Farm, which faces significant concerns over classroom space.

A third model would create two enrollment zones in the district — for Wildwood and Crocker Farm — and would make Fort River a sort of magnet “school of choice” in the district.

A fourth option would offer no change to enrollment zones, and would fill the need for Spanish-speaking and other students at Fort River through school choice from other districts. Morris said, however, that residents would likely reject that option, given that many students in the dual-language program would come from other districts.

Each option has various challenges, which were discussed at length: transportation costs, travel times, whether siblings would follow each other if one was selected in a lottery, socioeconomic balance among the schools, what factors are considered in a lottery system, the maintenance of neighborhood schools and community concern over possible redistricting.

“I don’t think it’s a surprise that option one is the option I’d be recommending at this time,” Morris said, stipulating however that all options are on the table as feasible, and that he is still in the process of collecting information. Morris added that he would not himself support option two, but that it is a possibility.

As the district gears up to implement the program in the fall of 2019, trainings and information-collecting work is continuing. Recommendations and analysis from a special education “specialized program working group” is soon to come, and educational staff recently took part in a programing workshop. The district is also conducting a feasibility study at the Fort River site and considering regionalization with Pelham, both of which would factor into any decision that is made.

Ahead of the School Committee’s Sept. 25 meeting, Morris is traveling to Harrisonburg, Virginia, to hear about that district’s dual-language program. That, as well as other trainings, will inform a fuller conversation about instruction issues at that meeting.

Air quality

In addition to the dual-language program, the committee discussed the results of recent air quality surveys at Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools.

Those reports from the environmental consulting firm ATC Group Services found acceptable levels of asbestos, bacteria, mold, particulate and radon, though the studies did find excess levels of carbon dioxide in some areas of both schools.

In Fort River, those elevated levels were found in the cafeteria and room K1, and in Wildwood’s K3 and G4 rooms. ATC recommended increasing fresh air to those areas, including keeping ventilation areas clean.

James McPherson, the district’s facilities director, addressed the reports in front of the School Committee, and also touched on the larger infrastructure challenges that the district faces. A big part of those concerns are the roofs of Fort River and Wildwood, which will need to be replaced in 2022 and 2023 respectively.

McPherson said the roofs’ membranes are periodically fracturing, and that there is no way to patch them consistently.

“Eventually the cracks are going to run faster than I’m going to be able to catch up to,” he said.

The School Committee suggested more frequent updates on the state of the buildings’ infrastructure and what needs to be done.

The possibility of regionalization with Pelham was also a topic of conversation, with School Committee member Peter Demling presenting on the work of a planning board looking into whether regionalization makes sense from a financial and educational perspective.

The group is finalizing plans to hire a consultant to take a deep dive on the finances of regionalization, and another consultant to look at how such a move would affect issues like governance, enrollment and school policies.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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