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Votes

First Grow, Then Go

Potomac Elementary’s Chinese immersion program to expand, then move.

The Chinese immersion program started at Potomac Elementary in 1996. In 2006, it probably won’t be there anymore.

The Board of Education voted unanimously on Feb. 10 to turn Chinese Immersion into a county-wide program effective this September. It further directed Superintendent Jerry Weast to find a school more centrally located in the county by November of 2005.

The changes were brought up during discussion of the school system’s $1.6 billion operating budget. Some parents with children in the program felt the changes should have been discussed as its own issue, and appeared on the board’s agenda. “We were completely blindsided,” said Diana Conway. “We’re deeply disappointed in both the process and the outcome.”

“If there’s a funding impact, you have to bring it up during the budget,” said Reggie Felton, (District 5) vice president of the Board of Education. Felton made the proposals to change the program.

The budget must be approved by the County Council, but the council does not typically analyze line items in the Board’s budget, it only presents the schools with a lump sum.

“They were discussing the operating budget,” said George Margolies, staff director for the Board of Education. Felton had proposed adding $15,000 to the budget to add a second class to the Immersion program.

Currently there is one class in kindergarten through grade 4 and two classes in grade 5. When this year’s fifth grade class moves on to Hoover Middle School, a teacher will be free to move to a different grade.

Felton’s budget addition would have added money to buy materials for a second class. “There would be just some supplies and equipment,” Margolies said.

If it had passed, one class would have been dedicated to Potomac students, and the second class to out-of-boundary students.

The measure failed by a vote of 3-4 with Felton, Gabe Romero (District 1) and Kermit Burnett (District 4) voting for it, said Margolies.

Each class would have had a maximum enrollment of 25 students. Potomac Elementary has a current enrollment of 594, according to Montgomery County Public Schools. The school’s capacity is 488.

After his first measure failed, Felton proposed a second measure to open the program completely. “There are many who feel you can’t call it a county-wide program and only allow students from Potomac,” Felton said.

When the program started, it was funded by a federal grant which went directly to developing the materials for Chinese Immersion. The grant has run out.

It is now funded by tax funds and by a federal grant which is distributed to all 11 immersion programs in the county.

Felton’s second proposal, which passed unanimously, makes the entire program open to students from anywhere in the county.

“All 25 seats in the entire class will be filled by lottery,” Margolies said.

Priority will be given to children with siblings in the program.

All immersion programs in the county are now filled by lottery.

Out-of-boundary students will not have transportation provided to them.

A third motion made by Felton, which also passed unanimously, directed Weast to find a school better suited to house the program. “We’ve asked that there be a more central location,” Felton said.

Since the program will now draw students from across the county, the board reasoned that it should be placed in a school which is more geographically centered in the county, and also one which has the capacity to house the 150 students which might enter it.

Weast has to identify a location no later than November of 2005. Although it is theoretically possible that the program remain at Potomac, “It is unlikely that it will be there,” Felton said.

Students in the immersion program currently go to Hoover Middle school, where the program continues, and Churchill High School, where Chinese is offered as a foreign language.

What will happen when the students who enter the program next year in the lottery are ready to go to middle school was not discussed.