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French Immersion at Herndon Elementary in Jeopardy

Program at Herndon Elementary could be changed to Spanish Immersion, parents object.

Ann Gwynn, principal of Herndon Elementary School, speaks to parents about the possible end of the school’s French Immersion Program Wednesday, Jan. 30.

Ann Gwynn, principal of Herndon Elementary School, speaks to parents about the possible end of the school’s French Immersion Program Wednesday, Jan. 30. Photo by Alex McVeigh.

— Herndon Elementary School has announced a proposal to discontinue the school’s French Immersion Program, one of two in the county, and replace it with a Spanish Immersion Program. Principal Ann Gwynn said that the French program would continue until 2019, meaning incoming first graders next year would be the last students who could take the program to completion.

The current French program is a partial immersion program, where students spend half the day studying their grade level subjects in French, the other half in English. The replacement Spanish program would be a two-way immersion program, in which the grade is made up of half native English and half native Spanish speakers, who spend half the day learning in Spanish and half the day learning in English.

The goal of the two-way immersion program is to provide language models for both groups, increasing language acquisition from both groups of native speakers to the other.

Gwynn cited two major reasons for the change: decreased enrollment in the program, and increasing Hispanic demographics in the school’s district. She said that over the past nine years, 472 students have started French Immersion in first grade, while only 256 students have finished sixth grade in the program, giving it a retention rate of just over 54 percent.

THE COUNTY’S STAFFING RATIOS, which mandate a certain number of teachers per number of students, mean that low class size in the French program is taking resources away from other classes.

“Because of the size of French classes, if you’re at [the county’s ratio], there is a seat somewhere else that has to balance it out,” Gwynn said. “When we start trading things to make one program work, it starts affecting others,” she said. “We’ve started impacting physical education, instructional assistants that can work with all students and we start impacting the number of resources we can purchase for all students. As we put more and more resources into maintaining French immersion in its current state, we’re impacting all students.”

Gwynn said the advanced math classes in the French program have cost the school two staff spots, and they had to trade in a day’s worth of Physical Education, half of an instructional assistant and add money from the General Fund to keep staffing ratios up to standard.

According to Gwynn, the other major reason for a change would be to “adapt to the change in demographics” of the school’s district since the French program began in 1988. That year 78.75 percent of students at Herndon Elementary were white and only 2.5 percent were Hispanic.

In 2012, the schools population was 43.1 percent Hispanic, 32.4 percent white, 9.9 percent Asian, 8.6 percent black, 5.6 percent other groups and .4 percent Native American.

Currently, the sixth grade class at Herndon Elementary is made up of 32 percent Hispanic students. This number climbs as the grade level goes down, with 33.5 percent in fifth grade, 36.5 percent in fourth grade, 40 percent in third grade, 42.5 percent in second grade, 46 percent in first grade and 56 percent in kindergarten.

The school has also been affected by the new state requirement that requires teachers in elementary school immersion programs to be certified in Elementary Education. Previously teachers could be certified K through 12 French.

This new requirement means that longtime French teacher Mona Samaha, a fixture at the school, will be leaving for a middle school position after this year.

Samaha said she thought about trying to keep her position, but called the requirements “excessively high,” meaning 37 credits and multiple tests just to keep her current job after this year.

MORE THAN 100 PARENTS from Herndon Elementary showed up at a meeting at the school Wednesday, Jan. 30, to express their concerns over the French program going away.

Begona Morton moved with her family from Belgium, and she said they specifically chose Herndon Elementary because of its French program.

“The level of French education here is better than when my children were taking it in Brussels, this is a special program,” she said. “We don’t just want to save the French program here, we want to improve it.”

Herndon Elementary parents said they are worried about the program being able to retain any teachers, teachers who know they will need to find a new position by 2019.

“I’m not leaving, that’s for sure,” said Megan Kelly, a current French teacher at the school. “I don’t have any intention of leaving, and I don’t think those of us who can stay do either. I’m here to the end.”

Other parents are concerned because they were just informed about this change a few weeks ago.

“We heard about in when we got a piece of paper in the mail about two weeks ago, but when I reached out to Principal Gwynn, she said she had been discussing it with the PTA for more than two years,” said Tracy Brooks, a parent. “To say that we’re upset is an understatement.”

Kimberly Wood, who serves as vice president for volunteers for the school’s PTA, says she was happy to see parents come out and support the program, and hoped that if it were to continue, the support from parents would be there.

“This program needs support both internally and externally from the community,” she said. “In the past few years, we’ve had to cancel the French Club, the French Media Club and others because that support wasn’t there.”

Herndon Elementary parents have created a Facebook page entitled “French Immersion at Herndon,” http://www.facebook.com/#!/groups/489799801056849/, and an online petition located at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/keep-french-at-herndon.

Gwynn said the change at this point is “just a proposal,” and plans to hold another meeting in the next month to answer questions and provide more statistics.