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Japanese Immersion Program Under Review

Floris Elementary School parents worried immersion program could be discontinued.

Floris Elementary School has created a scholastic reputation that stretches beyond Herndon's borders.

In fact, the school's reach has expanded past county and state lines and has even earned international attention for its Japanese Immersion program.

"As a parent, we picked [Floris] because it had good test scores and it had a Japanese Immersion program," said Shari Berman, mother of two Floris students. "It's neat for them to understand another culture."

But, based on recent talks with Fairfax County Public School officials, Berman said it is unclear how much longer the program will run at Floris.

In March, Floris Japanese Immersion parents were notified that the Japanese Immersion, or JI, program was under review and there was a possibility it could be moved out of Floris.

"Our concern is that this is our school and for them to take it out will change the make up of our school," said Berman, a parent liaison. "Ultimately we don't really know why its being driven in this direction."

ORIGINALLY CREATED in 1989 through a grant awarded to FCPS, the Japanese Immersion program was implemented in three area elementary schools, Floris, Fox Mill and Great Falls.

"It's a wonderful way to learn a foreign language," said Paula Patrick, foreign language coordinator, FCPS. "The immersion model teaches math, science, health and uses language as the tool for which students learn."

Currently the county runs 13 immersion programs that teach four languages in its schools.

At Floris, students enroll in the program before entering first grade.

Principal Karen Siple said currently 14 percent of the school's 830-student population is enrolled in the program.

"The program is a choice," said Siple. "So, not all of the students are involved in the instructional program."

But, even with a small percentage of the population enrolled, Siple said the school as a whole benefits from the program.

"We have a Japanese word of the week," she said. "The pronunciation is given to the kids at the start of each week and then the word is hung in the cafeteria."

In addition Siple said other Japanese-centered events, including an annual Japanese Festival, the opportunity for the JI students to walk in the Cherry Blossom Festival, a Go Tournament between the three immersion schools and Japanese artwork hung outside the children's classrooms benefit everyone.

"I think the community involved in the program," said Siple, "brings culture and other things to the school that everyone can participate in."

And, although she had no statistics to quote, Siple said a possible reason behind Floris' high Standards of Learning test scores could be attributed to the immersion program.

"Studies have shown that learning a foreign language at a young age," she said, "leads to an increase in learning."

Berman said she has seen the benefits of the program outweigh any negatives first hand with her children, adding it's important for all children to learn about other cultures at a young age.

Judy May, another JI parent and active PTA volunteer, said it was a "no-brainer" to enroll her three children in the program.

"Learning another language is key," she said. "We live with a global economy in a global world now and I want my children to have a sense of the world. They are much more open to look at new ways to do things than I was at their age because of this program."

IT'S BECAUSE of these reasons that May and Berman are concerned that Floris could potentially lose its JI program by the 2006-07 school year.

"What we can't get to the bottom of is, what problem are they solving by doing this?" asked May.

May said she first learned about the decision in November, but it wasn't until a March 14 parent meeting, that the possibility of the program being removed became a reality.

"We were told they were supposed to make a recommendation to decide if they were going to move the Floris program to Fox Mill," she said. "They spoke about how the population was not as they thought it would be."

In reviewing Floris' immersion program, Patrick said as students reached the upper grades, due to attrition, enrollment numbers dropped.

She added in any school where a program is offered to a selected amount of students, the county watches enrollment numbers closely.

"We are really looking at class sizes and the resources that are there," she said. "As a public school system, you're always looking to see if what you're doing is the best for all the students in the program and all the students not in the immersion program."

Because the county has to pay for an additional teacher to balance out the non-immersion classes, Patrick said FCPS wants to make sure it's cost effective.

If it finds it is not cost effective to run a Floris program and a Fox Mill program, because the schools are two miles from each other, Patrick said they could look into combing the programs.

But, she added a recommendation will not be made until October and that nothing will be decided until public comment is heard.

"We wouldn't be holding these meetings if we didn't want to get community input," she said. "Maybe through these talks someone can bring something to our attention that we haven't thought of."

May said although they did have the opportunity to speak with Patrick and Betsy Goodman, assistant superintendent for cluster VIII schools, she still had unanswered questions and felt like a decision had already been made to transfer the program.

In addition, she said if the schools did unite, a new set of issues will arise that could deal with everything from moving children from a familiar learning environment at Floris to possibly having to split siblings between the schools, meaning parents would have to operate on differing bell schedules.

"The JI program is what makes the school special," she said. "As you pull it away from the school, you lose a part of the school atmosphere."

Because FCPS wants to hear more from the school community, four additional meetings have been scheduled over the next three months.

Siple said although nothing was final, if the program were to be transferred, the result would be a stronger program at Fox Mill with just as many benefits.

"I think the influence of the program would still continue at Floris," she said. "There is a lot of pride at the school and a part of that is certainly because of the JI program, but there are many other aspects of the school."

In addition, if removal is recommended, Patrick said the school system would explore some of FCPS' other language programs that incorporate the entire school population, to keep the foreign language enrichment.

The next public meeting will be held April 28, at 7 p.m., at Floris Elementary School. Call the cluster office at 703-246-6510.