Superintendent explores dual-language program at Fort River


Phyllis Hardy, the executive director of the Multi-State Association for Bilingual Education, and Superintendent Michael Morris listen to the questions and concerns parents brought up at a dual-language information session held April 4, 2018. (Brian Choquet/ Amherst Independent)

AMHERST — Fort River Elementary faces declining school enrollment rates, and has a student demographic where 25 percent of students do not speak English as their first language. Those factors have made it the prospective home to the first-ever Spanish/English dual language program in the district.

The program was introduced by Superintendent Michael Morris at a Amherst-Pelham School Committee meeting last month, but no official proposal has been made. With some aspects still needing more planning before an official proposal is presented to the school committee this fall, Morris sought input from community members at information sessions held April 4 at the Jones Library.

The two sessions, held at 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., were led by Morris and Phyllis Hardy, the executive director of the Multi-State Association for Bilingual Education. Discussion and questions were then opened up to the curious and interested parents who attended, most of whom had children who could be eligible to join the program if it is successfully introduced in fall 2019.

The program would run in two kindergarten classes at Fort River. Each year will add an additional grade to the program. It has not been confirmed in which grade the program would end. A non-dual language option would still be available at the school.

Students in the program would be taught both English and Spanish. But the program would differ from the Spanish class most remember taking back in grade school.

“You are not only learning social language … in two languages, but you are learning all academics in two languages,” said Hardy, who stressed the uniqueness of dual-language programs.

Hardy originally stumbled upon dual-language programs when she worked at a school in Framingham while pursuing a masters degree in special education at Boston College. Back in Puerto Rico, where Hardy grew up, these kinds of programs were unheard of.

As the director of MABE, she has helped introduce these kinds of programs to schools in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. In her experience and research, children who are enrolled in dual-language programs outperforming their non-bilingual peers in academics. There is also a reduction in the achievement gap between primarily Spanish speaking students and primarily English speaking student.

Parents raised concerns about teacher qualifications for these programs. Morris confirmed five teachers in the Amherst school district who are proficient enough in Spanish to teach a bilingual class. This means they have taught Spanish in the past or grew up speaking Spanish as their first language.

With the help of MABE, Morris hopes to recruit and better educate teachers on how to best run a dual-language classroom.

“I could do everything in English and I could do everything in Spanish, but I had to learn how to do it for people who are learning English and for people who are learning Spanish and that’s not automatic,” said Hardy, who discussed her difficulties in teaching a dual-language program.

Possible recruitment from local universities is also being explored. MABE has been in talks with the University of Massachusetts Amherst about starting up a bilingual and dual-language teaching program.

Morris also spoke on the environments these programs, specifically English/Spanish programs, create in a school. He recounted a talk he had with a middle school principal from Harrisburg, PA who told him the first thing he noticed was how different the cafeteria environment was. Relationships among students wildly differed from before the introduction of a dual-language program.

This building of community was witnessed first-hand by Morris when he visited dual language schools in Cambridge and Princeton, N.J.

Morris visited multiple schools that offer bilingual programs similar to the one he is attempting to implement at Fort River. In an elementary school in Princeton, N.J., Morris noticed class assignments and student art were in Spanish. (Photo courtesy of Michael Morris)

“The thing that is less tangible but … the most visible was the global citizenship and cross-cultural relationships that I saw,” said Morris, who focused on how these programs can build a connected community.

He believes English speaking students will benefit from learning about Spanish speaking cultures.

For students who speak Spanish as a first language, the program would allow them to better preserve their Spanish tongue — something that can be easily lost when surrounded by English speakers.

Pelham resident Miriam Kolar, a bilingual mother of a 4-year-old daughter, attempted to enroll her child into a Spanish or bilingual speaking daycare when she lived in Santé Fe, N.M. She was unable to get her daughter into any of those programs.

“We speak almost only Spanish with [my daughter] at home and then she went to her first year at preschool where it was English dominant and she basically lost her Spanish,” said Kolar. “Now we are really struggling to get her to use Spanish.”

Kolar was not alone on this issue. Hardy sometimes finds herself repeating the phrase “Sabes que tienes que hablar conmigo en Español” to her 3-year-old grandson whenever he speaks English.

“Until we live in a world that values multi-linguism, we’ll have that problem,” said Hardy.

Morris expects the program to have some popularity among Spanish and non-Spanish speaking residents of Amherst. He hopes it will help increase the declining enrollment rates in the district. However, he is uncertain how the enrollment process will work.

It has not yet been established if the program will only be available to families residing in Fort River’s school zone or be open to other families in Amherst via a lottery system.

A lottery system would give families a random chance to be enrolled in the school. Morris hopes to find a way that would allow the lottery system to give some kind of preference to families who speak Spanish as a first language.

He hopes either option would encourage families to move into the Fort River school zone and help reduce the high percentage of students who are considered economically disadvantaged — making up 38 percent of the student population, 6 percent higher than the district’s average.

As for Crocker Farm Elementary or Wildwood Elementary, Morris has no plans to introduce a dual-language program at either location. Instead, he hopes to forge a unique identity for both schools.

“For the non-Fort River schools, we’re using this as an opportunity for them to reimagine what their futures look like,” said Morris.

He then assured parents all the schools will still teach classic subjects like math and history, but hopes to give each school “a little more intentional focus.”