Blaine County consolidates dual immersion programs

The Blaine County School district is canceling a nearly 20-year running dual immersion program at one of its elementary schools, citing challenges finding qualified bilingual teachers.

The Blaine County school board voted on May 12 to close one branch of their dual immersion program at Ernest Hemingway STEAM school in Ketchum, a move parents have decried as “rushed” and “inappropriate” during the pandemic.

Hemingway students who want to continue in the Spanish-English immersion program can enroll at Alturas Elementary in Hailey, the district’s magnet school focused on dual-immersion. The school board offered transportation for any kids who want to make the switch, and extra supports for Hemingway students transitioning into an English-only setting.

Blaine Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes and Hemingway Principal Tish Short both recommended consolidating the dual-immersion programs. Both said they wished they didn’t have to.

“This is not a situation that anyone in the district desired,” Holmes wrote in a letter to parents. “We understand that the loss of this program causes even more stress and grief at these difficult times.”

That’s small comfort to some of the Hemingway parents, who say the district shouldn’t have made such a large decision during a pandemic, when the community couldn’t gather in person to discuss the change. The board meeting was held over video conference, though parents were able to submit written comment.

“I feel betrayed and totally blindsided,” one parent wrote. “Please do not make this drastic, life-changing decision until this pandemic is over.”

Short told school board members that her staffing troubles came to a head the first week of May, when she learned two of Hemingway’s dual immersion teachers didn’t plan to return the following school year.

She has for years struggled to hire teachers, she told the board, sometimes wrestling sister-school Alturas for qualified candidates or forcing teachers to instruct in  dual-immersion when they didn’t want to. Short told the school board she asked Hemingway’s existing dual immersion teachers if anyone would switch grade levels to fill in for the teachers who were leaving. Nobody did.

Considering the new vacancies “virtually impossible” to fill, and the opportunity for students to enroll at Alturas, Short recommended consolidating the district’s dual-immersion programs to the school board in a letter on May 6.

“It’s a human resources crisis,” Short told the board. “I just can’t make it a really effective, amazing program that meets the needs of all of our students. It’s just untenable.”

The shortage of bilingual teachers is a well-documented issue nationwide. The district says Hemingway’s dual-immersion model is an added challenge, because one teacher instructs students in both English and Spanish. To do so, they have to have an academic-level grasp on each language, instead of being merely conversational in either one.

Parents praised the dual-language program in dozens of letters to the school board, asking the district to try and extend the deadline for finding teachers, or phase-out the program instead of terminating it all at once.

Holmes and Short said they recognized the suddenness of the closure — but wanted to make a decision before kindergarten registration started and give dual-immersion families a chance to spend the summer talking about whether or not to send their kids to Alturas in the fall.

Parent Margot Ramsay told Idaho Education News that she enrolled her son at Hemingway specifically so he could participate in dual-immersion, learn a new language and develop broader cultural awareness.

She’s worried that pulling the dual-immersion program from Hemingway will remove some of the school’s diversity, particularly if native-Spanish speaking students transfer to Alturas to stay in the dual immersion program. Ramsay said she’s probably not  going to send her son to Alturas.

“It’s just such a bummer for our community, and especially for our kids,” Ramsay said.

Sami Edge

Sami Edge

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