For the last eight years, parents in South Arlington have had two choices when they send their elementary students to school: Spanish, or English.
At both Abingdon and Oakridge elementaries, students could enroll in Spanish Language Immersion programs, with teachers conducting the normal school day, but in Spanish.
That could change at next week’s school board meeting, when board members consider moving the Spanish immersion programs out of those two schools, and into another, consolidated site
Parents at Abingdon and Oakridge will know on Feb. 21 whether they will keep immersion programs in their schools. But their reactions will be decidedly different for each school.
At Abingdon, parents of students enrolled in the immersion program have largely welcomed news of the planned consolidation, looking forward to being part of another Key Elementary, home to a consolidated immersion program since 1992. At Oakridge, immersion parents and the PTA have split over the issue, some seeing the loss of a valued program at the school, others mirroring their peers at Abingdon.
Mary Hynes, school board chair, said the decision poses a challenge to the school board – they can’t, after all, consolidate only one school.
"Certainly, those issues will have to addressed. Having watched Key’s transformation, I think we’re interested in whether a second [immersion-only] school is a good idea," Hynes said. "But what happens to the neighborhood school? We’re going to have to grapple with that a little bit."
<b>Split in Three</b>
<bt>Kathleen Grove, Arlington Schools’ assistant superintendent for instruction, told board members last Thursday she supported a proposal to consolidate the immersion programs, a move she said made sense for teachers, students, and for the budget.
A consolidated program would help strengthen the Spanish-language curriculum, giving more opportunities for students to take classes like art, music or gym in Spanish, Grove said, opportunities not available in their current schools. It would also mean Spanish-language opportunities for gifted students and special education students.
In addition, she said, consolidation would mean more slots for students in the immersion program, and would let neighborhood schools focus resources on other local needs.
Good news, said Brenda Pommerenke, parent of a fifth grader and a kindergarterner in Oakridge’s immersion program, and a member of the group that studied consolidation. "We have only one classroom at each grade level, so you teach all 18 students together, except when you can’t," she said.
Because of breaks for art, gym, music, and higher level reading and math courses, she said, her fifth grader "was more fluent as a fourth grader than as a fifth grader." She said she would be happy if her children could get a whole day’s classes in Spanish at a consolidated immersion program.
But at a recent PTA meeting, Pommerenke said, there were three camps: those backing plans to consolidate immersion programs at another site; those who wanted to see consolidation, with the program centered at Oakridge; and those who wanted to leave Oakridge’s program the way it is now.
Sarah Bardos, parent to an immersion student at Oakridge, said she couldn’t support taking the immersion out of the school, if the only reason was to make it easier to run the program, easier for teachers to teach one group of students than two.
"You could make the same comment about any program Arlington offers. You could put all the gifted students in one school, or all the non-English speaking students," she said. "There are many ways to segregate students, to make instruction easier."
<b>Bridging the Gap</b>
<bt>Mildred Cruz-Fridman, Oakridge’s principal, has had to face the divide in her school’s parents for the last five months. As Grove prepared to recommend consolidation, Cruz-Fridman supported the plan, but not without trepidation.
"I wouldn’t say I came out strong for it. Let’s say I’m leaning towards it," she said.
While there is a split among the school’s parents, Cruz-Fridman said there are few parents whose feelings are set in stone.
"It’s hard to get a feel for how the parents feel," she said. "Some have changed, saying they would follow the program, who said before they wouldn’t leave, and some have flipped the other way. Opinions are always in flux."
Teachers in the immersion program were similarly split, she said. They saw the advantages to a consolidated program, but also realized they would be leaving a supportive community, and possibly drawing the best students away from the school.
To avoid that possibility, the school board will consider adding special programs or focuses to the curriculum for both Abingdon and Oakridge, like the science program put in place at Arlington Science Focus, the outdoor science project at Tuckahoe, or arts programs at Hoffman-Boston.
Cruz-Fridman said she has had the same message for parents supporting and opposed to plans for consolidation: go talk to the school board, talk to Grove, talk to Superintendent Robert Smith.
"That’s one of the wonderful things about Arlington, parents do have that ability," she said. "It’s a system that’s not so large you get lost."
<bt>Meanwhile, at Abingdon, parents are mostly happy to hear about plans to join their school’s immersion program with Oakridge’s.
"Selling it is easy when you hear how well the school at Key does, and how the teachers get along there," said Jane Shepard, PTA president and an immersion parent. She sent out invitations for input to local community groups, and didn’t hear much complaint from that end, either. "I would’ve thought that would happen, but it didn’t," Shepard said.
Hynes said she was interested to see how the consolidation proposal would turn out herself. "It will be an interesting challenge."
<i><b>Where & When</b>
<mh>The Arlington School Board will vote next Thursday on plans to consolidate immersion plans at Abingdon and Oakridge elementary schools, moving the program to one site at another school. The board meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 21, in the Board Room of the Arlington Education Center, 1600 N. Quincy St.</i>