Superintendent balks at School Committee member’s drive to start dual-language program

  • Cynthia Gerena, a teacher in 2020 at Joseph Metcalf School in Holyoke, leads a dual-language class. An Easthampton School Committee member and superintendent have differing views on whether to launch such a program in Easthampton. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 9/23/2022 5:03:27 PM
Modified: 9/23/2022 5:02:49 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Five years after first pitching the idea of a dual-language program in the city’s schools, School Committee member Laurie García is more determined than ever to see it happen, but the superintendent says there isn’t enough interest from the community for the district to offer it at this time.

García first discussed bringing the programming to the district with Julie Anne Levin, director of curriculum, five years ago.

“It has been my goal for many years to create a dual-language program in Easthampton, and it was actually part of my platform when I first ran for School Committee,” said García, who for more than three decades has been a language educator, having taught both Spanish and English as a second language. She also ran after-school Spanish programs in the area in the 1990s.

Superintendent Allison LeClair, however, said that although the program is worth exploring, it wasn’t a topic identified as a priority by residents, based on results of community surveys.

“I will say that in general, as a general statement, people in Easthampton are very satisfied with the education that their children receive,” LeClair said. “And I didn’t hear a lot of condemnation of certain aspects of the curriculum that we’re in a deficit. So I want to be clear about that.”

In an interview with the Gazette, García spoke of the Holyoke and Amherst school districts, both of which have growing dual-language programs.

She said she’s particularly impressed with Holyoke, which started a dual-language program during the 2014-2015 school year at Metcalf School with two kindergarten classrooms and has since expanded to E.N. White School with the opening of one prekindergarten classroom. It’s also been implemented at Kelly School for kindergarten.

Holyoke offers families a program choice that gives students the opportunity to learn in both English and Spanish. Every day, students are taught all grade level subjects in both languages.

In July, García and Levin attended a virtual three-day workshop by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Linguistics on how to lead dual-language programs.

García then gleefully announced at the Aug. 30 School Committee meeting that her longtime goal would soon become a reality for the district as the dual-language program would be launching in the fall of 2023 with the incoming kindergarten class.

Three weeks later, her tone changed after seeing that LeClair did not include the program during a Sept. 20 School Committee meeting at which she presented the district’s strategic plan, which formalizes the school district’s mission, values, goals and objectives.

“I want the School Committee to know that Dr. LeClair feels that the dual-language program is not a focus of this strategic plan,” García said.

“You all know that there are many community members that have contacted us for many years about our lack of good world language education and faculty. We don’t have upper levels. We don’t have AP levels. We’ve eliminated the program from the middle school and starting a program at the elementary level would not be a burden on the budget, because it would be instead of a regular class. So I just want to bring that to everyone’s attention.”

Spanish and French language classes are offered in the high school only.

LeClair said parental interest doesn’t warrant creation of a dual-language program. She noted that there were only five English Language Learner students in kindergarten and that the number of ELL students in the district over the last few years has not grown. A dual-language program, she said, could be something the district could entertain once they reached a certain threshold of students.

“We are still considered on the lower side of ELL,” LeClair said. “Do I think there are benefits to a dual-language program? Absolutely. Do I think that it should be triggered at a certain point when we have enrollment, that are ELL-focused, I think, possibly it does, but I could be wrong.”

Dual-language benefits

García said most dual-language programs do not have to be based on the number of students learning English as their second language. She cited communities such as Milton and Holliston, which have one-way immersion programs that include native English speakers or native speakers of the second language as most of the students are enrolled. In these types of classrooms, instruction takes place in two languages: English and the partner language.

“These communities value that we have a global community, and it’s important to speak other languages,” she said. “Multiple scientific studies have proven that children best learn another language before the age of 10, so our English speakers will benefit tremendously in a program that also provides formal education in English and Spanish for our heritage speakers in town.”

García added that the creation of a dual-language program fosters a greater appreciation of other cultures in the global community. Continued participation has shown increased cognitive abilities and even improved test scores for students with dual languages, she said.

Moving forward, García and Levin will be forming a focus group to create a plan and timeline for establishing and potentially launching a dual-language program in the district.

LeClair said in an interview with the Gazette that the district is committed to offering a variety of academic options to Easthampton students.

“Exploring ways in which we might expand language offerings will be part of a focus group’s work this year,” she said. “I look forward to learning more about our options in this content area from their research.”

García said that she will also report back to the committee after speaking with Levin to set up a date to give a presentation on the program during a future School Committee meeting.

“We need to have a drive to educate our students to speak the second-most spoken language in this country and throughout the world,” she said. “So I’m not going to give up on this and I’m not going to be told that I am the only voice.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at
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