"How many years have we been having this conversation?"
Lake Oswego School Board member Kirsten Aird posed this question with a laugh during a meeting Monday, June 7, as the board considered recommendations presented by Lake Oswego School District Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Schiele regarding the future of the Spanish Immersion Program.
About a month after a Spanish Immersion Program Advisory Committee presented its recommendations — which included hiring a program coordinator, deciding on a permanent location for students and prioritizing native and heritage learners — the board voted unanimously to approve a plan that set a course for the program stretching all the way to 2029.
Specifically, the plan called for the old Palisades Elementary School building — which will be renamed as Palisades World Language and Culture School — to be the new permanent home for Spanish immersion beginning in the 2021-22 school year. A program coordinator will be hired under the approved plan, and Chinese will also be added as a language option at Palisades beginning in 2023. By 2028-29, the district expects to have two full "strands" (the term for when grades 1-5 are full) of students in the Spanish program and one full strand in Chinese.
"I just think it's world-class if that's what we want it to be," Aird said. "It's inclusive in building language competency that actually can then be utilized and shared in all the other schools, and really makes us be what we say we're going to be in a real way."
The Spanish Immersion Program — which is intended to teach a second language within a self-contained learning environment — was formed during the 2010-11 school year starting with one first grade class. The board voted to move the entry grade to kindergarten in 2013, and the first students to join the program are now high school sophomores. Entry is determined by a lottery and a waitlist is kept for those who do not win a spot.
The program has never had a permanent home; currently, elementary students are based at River Grove Elementary School while middle schoolers study at Lakeridge Middle School and high schoolers at Lakeridge High School.
According to Schiele, the move to Palisades was the most controversial element of the recommendations when families were surveyed by the district. The rationale from the district's perspective was that Palisades had an ideal location that was close to River Grove as well as Lakeridge Middle and Lakeridge High. According to Schiele, the move would also alleviate overcrowding at River Grove, and Palisades has been updated with a secure vestibule and new classroom technology.
She noted, on the other hand, that teachers and students would face the challenge of moving schools and potentially feeling isolated (since they would be the only occupants at the school). Palisades also has yet to be seismically upgraded and does not have a fully-functioning kitchen.
All of these factors contributed to the 50/50 split in survey responses about moving the program.
"I don't think we're probably ever going to have it any other way," Schiele said. "Change can be hard and moving schools also is hard.
"On the flipside, people agree with the idea of having a long-term plan for this program in a school that would stay. So you almost can't have one without the other."
She added that most families said they'd stay in the program even if they didn't support the move to Palisades.
"It does feel isolated. When they first go there, they will be without their peers — I think that is real," Schiele said. "But I think that there's a lot of really fun things that we can do with this group where they make it their own school, and we plan cultural evenings and food nights … I'm really excited to get it going."
Chair Sara Pocklington noted that the Palisades move would also help solve other capacity issues around the district by moving students from River Grove.
"The reality is we have capacity issues, particularly on the south side, that need to be resolved," Pocklington said. "I think this is a mechanism to (address capacity) that doesn't cause disruptions to families that are very tied to their local neighborhood school."
Before the final vote, board member Liz Hartman noted that not everyone in the community supported the program — there was heated debate when the district opted to expand Spanish immersion in 2017 — and that adopting these recommendations wouldn't close the door on opportunities to invest in other initiatives.
"You either go forward or you let it go," Hartman said. "We can still look at other programs to be put in schools, and start planting the seeds for whether or not we want to have magnet schools, or whether we want to eventually have languages in every single school."
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