Spanish Immersion safe for now

Some local elementary school parents rejoiced this week to learn that the Indian River School District isn’t canceling Spanish Immersion classes.

The school board made no movement May 22 to change the program and then approved 117 applicants’ acceptance into the 2017-2018 Spanish Immersion kindergarten class. (They do not expect all of those children to accept the offer, which is why such a large number was accepted for four classes.)

As the district anticipates budget cuts from the State, Spanish Immersion took its turn under the hot glare of consideration for potential cuts. In this case, the IRSD could have canceled the next Spanish Immersion kindergarten class to save some teaching units (meaning those students would never have immersion).

But parents, teachers and young children had come out brandishing signs and speeches. The message was clear: these students are already bilingual and better prepared for the 21st century.

“It challenges us, and aren’t we supposed to be challenged? We can’t only do the things that are simple,” said Debora Williams, an East Millsboro Elementary School third-grader. “With immersion, you can travel around the world and learn new things, because you speak the language! … I wish to be multilingual, so please, please think about it.”

Parent and John M. Clayton Elementary School teacher Irene Retzos was in tears as she described the positive influence immersion has brought to her school.

“Children of many social and ethnic backgrounds are walking down the hall and conversing, and it’s an amazing sight. The world continues to be smaller and smaller, and it’s our responsibility to make sure our children have the resources to communicate,” Retzos said.

A new cohort begins every year in kindergarten, so the first of the districts’ Spanish Immersion students are now finishing their third- and fourth-grade years at East Millsboro Elementary School and John M. Clayton Elementary School, respectively.

The children learn for half the day exclusively in Spanish and half in English. The goal is to teach children a new language by completely immersing them in it.

Parent and Selbyville Middle School teacher Matt Schifano said the children’s skills after one year is amazing.

“This program is … one of the most successful that the district can hang their hat on,” he said.

Many families didn’t get to comment, since only 30 minutes of each board meeting are dedicated to public comments. But Board Member Jim Fritz thanked those who spoke and reminded them to tell state legislators “to quit trying to balance the budget on the backs of education.”

“Call ’em. Complain loudly and continuously,” Board Member Donald Hattier agreed.

New grading system approved

Courses will get a bit tougher for Indian River High School students this fall, as the IRSD has decided to eliminate the lowest high-school course level. The “General” level courses will be removed, which leaves “College Prep,” “Honors” and “College Level” (AP/IB/AC).

That means the more basic levels of students will get a more rigorous education, though the College Prep students won’t get the same GPA bump as before.

Those changes begin with the graduating class of 2021, who begin their freshman year this autumn, so no existing high school students will see a change in GPA weighting.

Future College Prep students (now at the standard level of education) will no longer have weighted GPAs. (GPA weights aren’t changing for Honors and College Level students.)

Meanwhile, the General courses will be eliminated in favor of more rigorous coursework.

“It really doesn’t fulfill the requirements of a high school diploma anymore,” Hudson said. “For instance, a student that would go all the way through the high school track on those [General] courses wouldn’t even get through the clearinghouse to get admission to into college… It does not prepare them for any post-secondary training program or education.”

Many Delaware high schools, including Sussex Central, have already made the change. Indian River High School was one of the few remaining.

“We’ll be going to our College Prep curriculum for all our courses,” Hudson said. “There will be support for students that need support, in terms of co-taught courses, if there are students with special needs in the course or ELL [English Langue Learner] students.”

Some teachers said they were concerned that, in such an age of encouraging individualized teaching, the change will only reduce educational options.

But good teaching skills can overcome that, officials said, as teachers use differentiation and scaffolding — terms that describe the method of making a single lesson understandable for different levels of learners.

“We feel we can provide that in a supported fashion for all students and sort of come into the modern day with our peers across the state,” said Hudson.

The new policy also clarified that teachers aren’t required to give midterm exams, which will increase instruction time. Midterms historically shut regular classes down for a week for two-hour testing blocks. Plus, the week prior was devoted to test prep. And, in college, comprehensive midterms have generally been replaced by papers and unit tests, Hudson said.

Officially, the board approved these changes in the first and second reading of Policy IKA - Grading Systems.

In other school board news:

• The district’s attendance policy has changed. The biggest change is that after 10 days of parent notes, students must have a documented excuse (doctor, lawyer, court, etc.) for other absences. Previously, they could have 16 days of parent notes.

The change was included in the board’s approving the first and second readings of Policy JE - Student Attendance.

• The IRSD recently won an Educator Preparation Partnership Grant with Red Clay School District for $591,000 over three years.

• With 83 percent of the fiscal year completed, the district has spent about 83 percent of its budget, and Howard T. Ennis School has spent about 69 percent, said IRSD Finance Director Jan Steele.

The IRSD Board of Education’s next regular meeting is Monday, June 19, at 7 p.m. at Sussex Central High School.