Parents, Salt Lake school district argue over cutting kindergarten-level Dual Language Immersion class


Parents unhappy with the Salt Lake City School District’s plan to cut the kindergarten-level Dual Language Immersion class from Emerson Elementary starting in the 2018-19 school year believe the decision to be “hasty.”

District representatives, meanwhile, faced with a budget shortfall and the need to trim a staff position from the Extended Learning Program, consider it the best of the bad options available to them.

Both sides got a chance to hash it out Tuesday evening at a school board meeting in the district’s downtown office, with dozens of parents attending to plead for the kindergarten class.

“What we’re asking for tonight is for the school board to recommend to [Superintendent Lexi Cunningham] that she hit pause on this decision. Let’s have the hard conversations,” said Elizabeth Payne, the PTA co-president at Emerson.

Emerson is one of three elementary schools in the district to host a “magnet” ELP program, along with Hawthorne and Whittier, but is the only one of the three to feature accelerated programs taught half in English, half in Spanish.

Yándary Chatwin, the district’s executive director for communications and community relations, said in an interview that, with a cut needed somewhere, it simply became “a numbers situation.”

While noting that the ELP has done well, she pointed out, “We’ve seen the numbers going down over past few years — and at multiple schools, too.”

So, then, the discussion moved from “if” to “where” the cut should come.

“Hawthorne only has one [kindergarten] ELP class. At Whittier, it’s the only Title 1 school that has ELP, so we really don’t want to get rid of that. They’d have to travel further to access a similar program. We want to make sure all students have access to these programs,” Chatwin said. “So really, what it comes down to is, we either cut out half the kindergarten classes at Hawthorne, or take out a Title 1 class, or take out this one [Dual Language Immersion] class. We don’t want to get rid of it, but that’s the choice we’re faced with.

“The average class size there is 15 students,” she added. “At other schools in the district, it’s in the 20s, and as high as 32.”

Parents, though, expressed frustration at what they called a lack of communication in the process, not to mention the difficult choices they’re left with as a result.

Kristen Bayles already has two children in Emerson’s Dual Language Immersion program and wants the same for her third child, who is slated to start kindergarten next year.

But as parents have put their children through the requisite testing for the program, she said, it was not sufficiently communicated to them that the Emerson kindergarten ELP would no longer be an option.

If the cut is made, they must weigh enrolling their children in a regular kindergarten class at Emerson and re-applying for the dual-immersion for first grade. Or they could apply for the non-dual-immersion ELP kindergarten at Hawthorne or Whittier, then transfer to Emerson after a year.

“That’s a hard thing for young kids, especially because they all tend to stay together in a cohort — in the same classes together over the years,” Bayles said.

Payne said she believes the school district rushed into making a bad choice.

“It’s been a really fast decision. There hasn’t been any communication out to parents whose kids are testing for this program. We feel like that’s hasty and deceptive to the community,” she said in an interview on Monday. “We just want to have them pause for a moment and think of the inequality inherent in eliminating this class.”

Bayles contends, for example, “Historically, the Spanish program has been the most popular of the ELP classes in the three schools,” and believes the recent decline in enrollment to be “an anomaly.”

“So much of our native Spanish-speaking population is underrepresented in the gifted program,” she said. “If they eliminate the kindergarten class from the program, it really will decrease the numbers for future years.”

School board president Heather Bennett, who herself had a son in the ELP program starting back in 1993, was sympathetic to the parents who spoke, requesting more transparency in the process.

She added that she’d already requested that Cunningham delay implementation of the decision.

“I don’t know that there has been an open enough, inclusive enough process to come to this decision,” Bennett said. “Maybe this is the right decision, but I feel we need to have more information about the way it was made before we can be entirely comfortable.”

However, Bennett noted that the district’s financial situation was such that it “would not support three programs” as they currently are — a point that board member Rosemary Emery sought to drive home.

“I apologize to you as parents that we don’t have the funds that you would like us to have. I understand we need more information. I totally agree we need to be more transparent and we need more information. But I don’t know if delaying a decision would really be beneficial,” Emery said. “I want you to understand — we are a shrinking district. We’re not growing. And it’s a difficult situation. We’re not talking about closing a school — we’re talking about one class. And I know it’s a huge class for you who are involved, but … it is something we have to consider.”

Several board members pointed out that while they could make suggestions to Cunningham, she has the authority to make the decision on her own. For her part, Cunningham said she would consider a delay in order to get the item on the school board’s agenda for the next meeting, so that an official discussion could take place.