Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Austin trustees dual-language program

Austin trustees dual-language program
Pilot program would start in 2010, could cost about $700,000.

By Melissa B. Taboada

Published: 12:24 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009

The Austin school board late Monday unanimously approved starting a pilot dual-language program next school year.

In addition to helping Austin students become proficient in two languages, such a program could help boost enrollment in some of the district's underenrolled schools, district administrators said.

Dual language differs from traditional bilingual or English as a Second Language programs, which aim to teach English to non-native speakers. In dual-language classrooms, all students are taught in English and a second language, with the goal that they become fluent in both.

Austin is one of the largest districts in the state without such a program. Locally, the Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hays districts offer such programs in at least some schools.

The program could cost Austin about $700,000 to launch in three schools in the 2010-11 school year, though the exact number of schools would depend on funding.

A committee will decide in January which schools should be in the pilot. Nine elementary campuses — Becker, Blanton, Brentwood, Oak Hill, Odom, Perez, Ridgetop, Travis Heights and Wooten — have asked to participate.

The program is likely to be supported with a combination of general fund revenue and federal money.

The district decided against the program in 2006. But parents and community members again made a push for it this year. Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has said she supports the effort.

Dan Barrett, whose 4-year-old daughter will attend Becker Elementary School in the fall, is one of dozens of parents who asked for the program.

"It's all about the kids and the opportunity to be bilingual," said Barrett, who is not fluent in a second language. "I want (my daughter) to have a second language and have her have that added experience, that dual language and dual culture. ... It would have been so valuable (for me) to grow up with that."

The dual-language program would start with Spanish with prekindergarten and kindergarten students and replace the traditional bilingual education model. District officials hope to have dual language in 30 percent of all elementary schools by 2013; there are no plans yet for bringing the program to middle or high schools.

Denise Collier, a consultant who helped start a dual-language program in Dallas, said that studies show that students in such programs often outperform their peers.

"Brain research tells us kids are more creative, and it builds good habits of mind, habits of thinking," Collier said. And post-graduation, being bilingual is also an advantage in the workplace, she said.

However, Trustee Robert Schneider questioned the district's timing: Austin must close a $7.1 million shortfall in the 2010-11 budget.

"It's conceivable that we may be talking about laying off people at the end of the (current school) year," Schneider said.

"It doesn't help us to dig a deeper hole. ... In the right environment, it's a good thing to do, but I'm not sure this is the right environment."

Other Austin school board action

At their meeting Monday, trustees also:

• Discussed the district’s financial forecast: If no budget cuts are made between now and 2012-13, district reserves will drop from the current $124 million to $78.9 million in 2013, an amount less than the minimum goal of $105 million. Officials said property tax revenue is decreasing while spending is increasing for health insurance costs, the opening of new schools and the hiring of new teachers.

• Voted on a new strategic plan, a document that will guide the district’s direction and priorities through 2015. A copy is available at www.austinisd.org.

• Approved the appointment of Rose Peña as the principal of the Southwest Austin elementary campus slated to open in 2010. Peña is currently principal at Zavala Elementary School.

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