Dual immersion, the popular public school English-Spanish program, could be hit by the lack of ethnic diversity south of Jackson.
When school boundaries were finalized during the November Teton County School District No. 1 board of trustees meeting, it became apparent that the new elementary school would not have the demographic ratios of Colter and Jackson elementaries.
Munger Mountain Elementary School’s population when it opens is estimated to be 81 percent white, 17 percent Latino and 2 percent other. In town Jackson Elementary is 50 percent white and 47 percent Latino. Colter is around 41 percent white and 56 percent Latino.
The district’s two-way dual immersion program consists of a roughly equal balance of native English and Spanish speakers, allowing students to have language partners for instruction taught half in Spanish and half in English.
“In a two-way model, you try to be as close to 50-50 among those language groups as you can be,” said Chad Ransom, director of student services.
Up to around 60-40 in either direction is still considered a two-way program where the emphasis is on kids spending equal time in both languages.
When Munger Mountain opens in 2018 only kindergarten through third grade will have the demographics necessary for a two-way dual immersion program. Fourth- and fifth-graders who are in the dual program will have to be bused to Jackson or Colter. In the 2019-20 school year a fourth-grade dual program will be added at Munger. By 2020-2021 the plan is to have a dual program for the entire school.
Some other options
“It will take us three years to establish a K-5 program,” said Tracy Poduska, vice principal of Colter Elementary and the leader of the reconfiguration project. “There are different options as to what to do down there.”
Poduska said one idea is opening boundaries to invite students who don’t live in the area to come to Munger Mountain. That could include voluntary busing. Another idea would be a one-way immersion program where there isn’t an even balance of ethnicities.
If the program at Munger Mountain switches from being a two-way dual immersion to a one-way immersion program to account for demographics, many things will change.
“In a two-way model you can do a lot of peer-to-peer work and you have the opportunity to be with models of both language groups,” Ransom said. “You learn a lot of language from that kind of interaction. You’re able to teach content like math and reading. In a one-way model the weight of that second language is just on the teacher’s shoulders.”
Ransom said that in a one-way model the emphasis is on language instruction because you have less of the second language present in the environment.
“It impacts the amount of language kids learn over time,” Ransom said.
Some parents aren’t pleased and feel they don’t have enough information.
“People don’t know this is happening,” said Joanna Cooke, a parent of a second-grader in the dual program. Her husband is a dual teacher. “Every year we’re going to have to revisit this question in order to maintain the numbers we need. What we put into place now is going to dramatically impact the future of our schools. I don’t feel like rushing through this process.”
The district says more information is forthcoming as the process continues.
“We wouldn’t adopt anything that isn’t good for kids,” Poduska said. “If there were any changes to the existing model, we would explain why. It’s a decision that would be made based on best practices and what programs are effective for student achievement.”
When drawing boundaries the district tried to keep neighborhoods and families intact while also considering transportation costs and the time children spend on buses.
A ‘dual-only’ campus
Another option, choosing one of the schools as a “dual only” campus, has already been rejected by school trustees, but some want to reopen the discussion.
Trustee Keith Gingery, who supported the idea of a dual school, called the data that showed demographic problems “surprising.”
“That stirred some conversations that I am definitely open to having,” Gingery said. “We still have time. I’d hate for us to be a year down the road from now saying, ‘I wish we hadn’t moved so fast, I wish we hadn’t moved in this direction.’”
Trustee Joe Larrow is also open to reconsidering the plan. New board member Bill Scarlett said during his campaign that one of his priorities is re-examining the reconfiguration process and considering a dual school. New trustees Annie Band and Betsy Carlin said they want more information.
“We have a lot of experts in the district,” Band said. “We need to utilize them.”
Trustee Kate Mead believes the decision has already been made.
“I’d prefer not to go back to that [dual school] discussion,” Mead said. “It doesn’t upset me one bit to not necessarily have the same number of kids on both sides of the equation. I think it will work either way.”
Mead also pointed out that separating out dual and traditional classrooms might not be the best for collaboration.
Mead and Superintendent Gillian Chapman hypothesized at the November board meeting that growth south of town might follow construction of the new school and even out the numbers.
Others don’t see the fuss surrounding a switch from dual immersion to just immersion programming.
“There are other districts in the state who are not doing [two-way] dual immersion programs,” Teske said, “and they work just fine.”
Teske also pointed out that to have a dual-immersion school in one of the existing elementary buildings, the program would have to be restricted in order to stay under building capacity.
“That’s counter to the original three premises of reconfiguration,” she said. “I also feel very strongly that it would be divisive to the community. I’m not going to be at the forefront of opening up the decision again.”
The board was told last week it needs to decide quickly.
“If you wanted us to revisit this and select one of the schools to be a dual immersion school, we’d have to go back to the drawing board,” Poduska told the board. “It is really complex.”