Eanes ISD votes to extend controversial Spanish immersion program to K-5 students

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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that Round Rock ISD’s dual language program begins with 90:10 English-Spanish instruction and becomes 50:50 by fourth grade.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Eanes Independent School Board voted unanimously on Tuesday night to continue a highly popular, though controversial, Spanish Immersion Program for its students.

Kindergarten through fifth grade students enrolled in the program — approved by EISD in 2017 — will learn 50% of their curriculum in Spanish and the other 50% in English.

While many parents consider the program to be enlightening and modern for young pupils, others are discontent, expressing a believed sense of elitism between students enrolled in the immersion program and those enrolled in standard class work.

There are also questions about its feasibility given the district’s financial restraints and it’s impact on teachers, for both those within the immersion program and out.

An anonymous survey showed more than 70% of non-immersion teachers said they did not support the program. The same survey showed 56% of Spanish immersion teachers did. Since 2017-18, four of 10 bilingual teachers resigned and were replaced.

“If you can’t listen to your teachers, what are you doing,” said Beggs Neland, a EISD parent who chaired the advisory committee which researched the successes and challenges within the first three years of the pilot. “The team, the community, the culture of the school has changed and is divided.”

(KXAN/Alex Caprariello)

A private Facebook group supporting the Spanish immersion program also acknowledged other challenges faced within the first three years of the pilot, including “funding questions, recruiting and retention, ensuring access, student and parent school community challenges, and preparing for the future of the program.”

The group asked for all parents to attend Tuesday’s open forum to seek compromise and cooperation among parents and the district. They believe this pilot has helped their kids grow.

“Increasing everyone’s cross-cultural competence should be at the heart of what we are trying to do here,” said Caitlin Sweetlamb, who has a kindergartner student in the Spanish immersion program. “I understand there may be challenges in the implementation of the program, but I don’t see that as a reason to throw it out entirely. I see that as a reason to devote more resources into the program to make it better, stronger and more effective.”

The district reported several successes with the pilot program, including highly engaged students, full classes with some wait lists and demonstrated achievement.

In the Fall 2019 semester, there were 434 K-2 students in 20 Spanish immersion classes and 478 K-2 students in 25 non-immersion classes.

“Enrollment trends indicate there could eventually be 1,042 immersion students and 1,067 non-immersion students in grades K-5 at the four schools,” according to the district.

Other school districts

At Austin ISD, the district offers dual language learning in both Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin. Those classes are available as “two-way”.

That means classes are available for those native language speakers, as well as native English speakers, so they can learn together. Those are available in elementary, middle and high school.

Round Rock ISD’s dual language program begins in Pre-K and continues through fifth grade at 12 campuses. Pre-K and Kindergarten students are taught in Spanish for 90% of the time and 10% of the time in English, and learn to read and write in Spanish first. Each year after that, the English instruction increases and the Spanish instruction decreases until 4th and 5th grade when the day is split 50-50 in each language.

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