School Board urged to pause before expanding immersion
Possible expansion of the Lake Oswego School District's Spanish Immersion program and overall capacity issues at its schools dominated the conversation Monday night when the district hosted its first-ever Town Hall-style meeting.
Impassioned parents and community members filled the Lakeridge High School library for the meeting, which gave speakers two minutes each to question or address members of the School Board and Superintendent Heather Beck.
There was no preset agenda, allowing participants to talk about everything from transportation of students with special needs to board business practices and decision-making. But most of the hour and 45 minutes focused on Spanish Immersion and capacity issues in a room filled with orange signs that read "Pause! Don't Displace!"
The Spanish Immersion issue stems from a decision made by the previous School Board earlier this year to implement a second strand of World Language classes. On Oct. 9, the current board — including newly elected members Sara Pocklington and Rob Wagner — signaled its intention to move forward with the plan and directed staff to develop options for housing the program.
Last month, Joe Morelock, the district's assistant superintendent for academics and student affairs, returned to the board with three possible locations: River Grove, Lake Grove or Oak Creek elementary schools. But all three options include displacing students from their home schools to varying degrees, and that prompted concerns among parents that the immersion program would take resources and space away from general-education students.
Two of those parents, Sara Lewis and Kate Firmin, have been especially vocal in organizing support for pausing the decision to expand Spanish Immersion, and both attended the Town Hall meeting on Monday.
"We want to be heard, and we don't feel that we're being heard," Lewis told the board. "Nobody in this room is saying we don't want language. People are saying, 'Not right now.'"
Elizabeth Hills, the campaign chair for the Lake Oswego Schools Foundation, agreed.
"It seems to me that this is a program, that in order to expand it, it does pull resources away from general education," she said. "Is this really the direction that is the destiny of our district? Is this the right time?"
Lisa Shaw-Ryan, a local business owner and LOSD parent, expressed concern that adding a second strand of Spanish Immersion would distract the board and administration from successfully implementing the bond that voters approved in May.
"We have so many projects that keep coming up that want attention that we are losing focus on the bond," she said. "I'm worried that we're not being pragmatic enough in our decision making. We should not be taking on additional programming; we should be focusing on enacting an excellent bond to take care of the future of our students."
Parent John Devlin asked board members to individually state their views on the expansion of the Spanish Immersion program. Essentially, most responded with support for the program but acknowledged that now might not be the time to expand it — a view expressed by board Chair John Wallin in an open letter to the community that he posted to his Facebook page on Saturday night.
In the letter, Wallin questioned whether any of the locations currently being considered as homes for Spanish Immersion would work in a way that satisfied board requirements.
"While staff did work as the board directed to find good options for expansion in this year, when combined with the number of programs that already have to move due to work on the bond, I have concerns about whether the proposals meet the test of one of our guiding principles: minimize disruption," Wallin said.
While it's true that the board only requested expansion options, he added, board members "are not locked into selecting one immediately."
"For example," Wallin said, "another option could be stability: maintain the immersion program in its current single-strand configuration for now while continuing to strengthen and support it. This would not affect the existing program or its long term viability and would not result in moving students not in the program from their neighborhood schools."
On Monday night, board member Liz Hartman expressed a similar view.
"Whenever options come to the board," she said, "there is always the option not to take any options."
Board member Sara Pocklington echoed that idea, saying she wants to make sure that the immersion program is set up for long-term success and that pausing might be the best option now.
Community members and parents also expressed concern over capacity issues separate from the Spanish Immersion issue. Many questioned whether the board would consider opening a seventh elementary school to help decrease class sizes and prepare for future growth.
But the board was largely dismissive of the idea, citing a lack of funds despite the district's $14 million reserve. Hartman said it would cost $875,000 a year to operate another elementary school, in addition to the costs of opening it.
"We chose to keep a healthy reserve because we can't predict when the state of Oregon is going to drop our budget," Hartman said. "The state of Oregon is not a reliable funding source for K-8 public schools."
Former board member Linda Brown expressed support for maintaining a healthy reserve. She also questioned the district's decision to expand immersion, saying it only serves a small percentage of students.
"I urge you to think long and carefully about where you want to spend your resources," she told the board, "so you can continue the quality of education that you provide."
In his online letter to the community, Wallin said he expects "several weeks of public discussion" before the board settles on a final direction for the Spanish Immersion program. He also said he was looking forward to hearing from the community at the Town Hall, "which may shape these options further."