Solia Matute and her husband, Jeff Eshleman, notice more than a two-year age difference between sons Freddy and Sammy Eshleman. Freddy, 8, speaks, reads and writes his mother’s native Spanish. Sammy, 6, sometimes stumbles through the language, even though his parents speak it at home.

The difference can be attributed to School District of Lancaster’s Dual Language Immersion program, the Lancaster couple says. As part of the program, Freddy has learned lessons at Wharton Elementary in Spanish and English since kindergarten. He starts third grade in the fall. Sammy, who starts first grade in the fall, was not accepted into the program.

Students participate in the program through a lottery that selects 25 incoming kindergartners each year to attend a bilingual classroom through eighth grade.

The district’s school board could provide some clarity on the program’s future on Tuesday, June 15, 2021, when it votes on the next steps to be taken after a consultant reported the program is not working and needs significant changes. Hired by the school district, the consultant suggested more money be spent on the 12-year-old program that already costs $1.2 million annually, or about $7,400 per pupil more than the cost of a student who is not part of the program, which currently serves 162 students of a possible 225. The consultant also recommended hiring a dual-language specialist.

In the meantime, administrators have paused the program for incoming kindergarten students next school year while they study what changes could be made. The district recommends that, ultimately, board members should either invest more money in the program or begin gradually phasing it out. The school board makes the final decision and has the ability to reinstate the kindergarten lottery for the 2021-22 year.

How it works

An equal number of Spanish and English speakers compose a dual-language immersion class. The goal is for all students to be bilingual when they leave eighth grade.

Teachers present lessons in Spanish and English. About 70% of lessons occur in Spanish in kindergarten, and the percentage reduces slowly by the time students exit the program.

The district provides bus transportation to children who don’t live in the Wharton-Reynolds area. Any incoming kindergartner was automatically entered into the lottery that selects the program’s students.

Maribel Perez of Lancaster noted the social value of having children Nate and June Smith study with teachers who present lessons in Spanish and English. Instructors “value and acknowledge the (Spanish) language,” she said.

One problem, administrators say, is that families leave the program before students finish. For instance, 20 kindergarten students remain of 25 who started at the beginning of this year. The district followed the 25 students who began in the program’s first year in 2009. By eighth grade, only 12 remained in the bilingual class, said district spokesman Adam Aurand.

Shannon Smith, who directs the program, said some students want to return to their home schools to stay with friends. Students in the program are required to attend Wharton Elementary and Reynolds Middle schools.

Some parents become uncomfortable with having children on the other side of the district in case of a family emergency, she said.

Support remains

Parents with children in the program, however, remain undeterred.

“I think they should keep the program,” said Matute, who is from Honduras. “It’s important not only for my children but for other children in the community to be bilingual.”

“The program works,” said Wileidy Jose, of Lancaster. The Dominican native not only has two sons in the program, but has volunteered in classrooms. “I saw kids with non-Spanish backgrounds, and they spoke better Spanish than my own kids.”

Superintendent Damaris Rau, who learned Spanish at home, supports bilingual education but wonders if the cost is justified.

“I believe in equity,” Rau said Tuesday. “We serve 11,000 students in this district, and we want to make sure the $1.2 million serves the entire district.”

Rau said the money could pay for more kindergarten teachers to lower teacher-student ratio, currently at 25 students per instructor. Or, the money could expand the district’s after-school programs to allow more parents access to child care five days a week instead of the two or three days available this past year.

“The board is in a difficult position,” Rau said. “Everybody believes in offering bilingual education. You can’t have everything.”

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