Reduce, expand or move? (Video) Lawrence Township Magnet Programs Under Construction

Forest Glen elementary schoolFor weeks I’ve been weighing the pros and cons of placing my son in a Spanish immersion program when he heads off to kindergarten next fall.

He could attend a traditional kindergarten at Amy Beverland’s new Early Learning Center or we could opt for the Immersion program at Forest Glen Elementary, where his instruction would be done in Spanish only.

Then came the suggestion from the school district’s Balancing Enrollment Committee to eliminate Immersion kindergarten, along with an incoming class of first graders in Forest Glen’s Global Studies program and a first-grade class at Indian Creek, the district’s science and technology magnet. The rationale was to alleviate overcrowding at the popular magnet schools and send more students to neighborhood elementaries where enrollment has been declining.

My first response was relief: I would have no choice for my son’s kindergarten. He would go across the street to Amy Beverland.

My second though was outrage: How dare they take away my choice? As much as I agonize over what is best for my son, in the end, I want it to be my decision.

It turns out hundreds of families with children currently or formerly in the magnet programs were also outraged. Forest Glen parent Francesca Davis immediately began rallying others to fight the recommendations, sending e-mails to more than 500 families and holding a meeting at the car dealership owned by her and husband Scot. The parents there came up with this official position: “Don’t mess with successful programs.”

DeeDee Peduto, who has two children at Forest Glen, met with a group of moms at Mama Bear’s to talk it over. She says many families stay south of the Hamilton-Marion county line because of the magnet programs, and she feels Lawrence Township property values are in jeopardy if the district messes with the nationally-recognized programs.

“We just invested a lot of time and money into remodeling our home because we’re committed to stay in Lawrence Township and the magnet program,” Peduto said. “I am overall concerned about the township, my neighbors, kids who are younger, the community and my future property values.”

The Balancing Enrollment Committee—made up of teachers, parents, administrators, and community representatives – has since modified their original recommendations, which called for reducing magnet programs while somehow supporting a long-term goal of increasing magnet school options. The committee is now withdrawing its proposal to trim the highly regarded magnet programs, but they are recommending Immersion kindergarten be moved from Forest Glen to an Early Learning Center (ELC) elsewhere in the district.

“The ultimate goal in the committee’s mind was to provide greater opportunities for choice through expansion of the special program themes or strands that currently exist at the elementary level, not to limit them,” said Committee Chairman Ed Williams, who is assistant superintendent for planning and operations.

But it’s not case closed yet. There is still a numbers issue at Forest Glen, where enrollment is pushing 700. District policy says it should be around the average for all elementary schools, which is about 550. Even the principal, Nikki Woodson, supported the committee’s initial recommendations, citing research she says shows the immersion program would not suffer if it started in first grade.

Davis fears that moving kindergarten to an ELC would make it easier for the district to discontinue it later. She says her family made a 24-year commitment to the Immersion program when their first of eight children started kindergarten at Forest Glen and they bought a home near the school. Now with three children at Forest Glen and others soon to follow, Davis is baffled at the lack of commitment she feels the district is showing them. All of the research she’s seen (including the study Woodson cited) points to the benefits of learning a foreign language early.

“To take a piece away from a program that’s working doesn’t make sense,” Davis said.

School Board member and Forest Glen parent Henry Fernandez said he felt conflicted about the proposal, seeing benefits to kindergarten being grouped with other early learning programs but worrying that something will be lost by isolating it from the culture at Forest Glen.

“It has to be a compelling reason for me to move kindergarten out of Forest Glen,” he said during a Feb. 2 school board work session.

The board will likely vote on the issue at its next meeting on Feb. 26.

Board members also discussed long-range plans for increasing magnet options. The district would like applicants to have better than the current 50-50 odds they face when applying to magnet programs now. The board even discussed duplicating the Forest Glen and Indian Creek programs on the west side of the district.

Williams said he plans to survey community members to gauge interest in these and other themes for future magnet programs. The earliest implementation for any long-term magnet expansion would be in the fall of 2008.

So I guess I still need to make that choice for my son’s education. I just don’t know where in the district he may be headed if we opt for Immersion.

As far as my almost two-year-old daughter, well, it sounds like there could be a dizzying array of options by the time she reaches kindergarten!


[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
Video clip of Lawrence Township School Board Vice President Lori Petrucciani explaining her understanding of the district’s long-range plans to increase choice for families through expansion of magnet programs.

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