Administrators continue to move forward with expanding the Spanish dual language immersion program at Paxson Elementary, even as some Missoula County Public Schools trustees raise concerns about the change.

"We have at the school level moved forward with the desire and the plan to develop the program so that all students that attend Paxson will have this opportunity in the future, beginning with kindergarten in the fall of 2015," said Heather Davis Schmidt, a regional director with MCPS.

Policies put in place in 2013 allows administrators to make changes to the program, but Superintendent Alex Apostle said he welcomes more discussion about the program to make sure trustees are comfortable with the direction.

"I think it's healthy to have these kinds of discussions," he said.

Recently, Paxson announced that instead of the opt-out model used this year for student selection into the program, all kindergartners will participate in the program next school year.

The news delighted parents who were disappointed when their children were not among the 40 students in this year's kindergarten program and who have upcoming children. The same news, though, worried other parents who no longer have an alternative at Paxson if they chose for their children to not participate in the program.

Questions prompted the topic being placed on Monday's Teaching and Learning Committee meeting agenda, scheduled for 6 p.m. at Paxson.

The program was implemented with half of Paxson's 2013-2014 kindergarten and first grade students on an opt-in basis, with just enough families opting in to fill the classes, Principal Kelly Chumrau said in an interview. This year, the process changed to opt-out, with a randomized selection process and families placed on a wait list.

Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive about expanding the dual language immersion program, both at the school level and during February's school board meeting, Davis Schmidt said.

During the board meeting, many parents spoke in favor of the program and shared experiences of how their children are learning to be empathetic and thrive with a second language. Only a handful of parents spoke against the program being expanded.

Dual language immersion is another delivery model for the same subjects other students are learning, Davis Schmidt said.

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However, a few parents have said they do not want their children to participate in the program, she said, adding that administrators are listening carefully to those families and will work to find solutions on a case-by-case basis.

District policy allows for children to apply to attend a school other than their neighborhood school. However, schools already are filled to the brim and it's rare for a spot to be available by choice, Davis Schmidt said.

Currently, the immersion program is funded with grant dollars, which have covered professional development and materials costs, she said.

If the grant funding were not renewed, the district would not see a significant expense to continue the program. Teachers would be hired to fill positions already a part of the general fund budget as other teachers retire or move, and curriculum materials would be purchased based on a regular curriculum review process already in place, she said.

Students take Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills assessments to gauge their development of early reading skills, and as of now students in the immersion program are performing on par with their peers not in the program, Davis Schmidt said.

She cautioned against putting too much emphasis on the scores since the program is new and they only reflect one year.

Last year, 75 percent of kindergartners received average scores on the DIBELS assessments, while 16 percent of kindergartners were below average and 9 percent were identified as well below average.

Seventy-five percent of first graders met benchmarks, 11 percent scored below average and 14 percent scored well below average, according to DIBELS scores in Paxson's profile on the MCPS website.

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Annie Belcourt said she learned about the program's expansion in December. At that time, school leaders were considering expanding the program for rising first-graders as well, which would have meant Belcourt's kindergarten daughter would no longer be in the English-only program. Ultimately, the change will only impact incoming kindergartners.

While there is some information about dual language immersion program participant academic performance from other states with similar programs, the information is inconclusive, Belcourt said, adding she prefers her daughter to learn core subjects in English.

"This is a neighborhood school. It's publicly funded and this is an experimental approach," she said.

It's not that she wants the program be eliminated, she wants parents to be able to choose, she said.

"I think fundamentally we want the opportunity for people to opt out," she added.

The onus is being placed on families to find a way to opt out of a program at their neighborhood school, Paxson parent Matt Taylor said.

To this point, he has not seen a concrete plan for how the district plans to move forward and evaluate the program, he said.

"I'd love to see it in writing. I just feel like they're kind of winging it," he said.

MCPS trustee Julie Tompkins, who voiced concerns about the program, shared similar sentiments that adequate answers have not been provided for what will happen for families who opt out or for families who move to the district mid-year or with students in higher grades.

"My concerns regarding language immersion at Paxson have nothing to do with language acquisition whatsoever and everything to do with this model being made mandatory at a neighborhood school," Tompkins said.

Instead, it would make sense to alleviate crowding in other elementary schools by making the dual language immersion program an optional academy at another building currently not used by the district, she said.

Tompkins said she also wants to make sure the program does not take money away from programs for core subjects, such as math and science, and that its cost and effectiveness are gauged.

"What I hope comes from Monday's discussion is factual information. Not demonstrations of speaking (and) singing in Spanish, or anecdotal evidence, or heartfelt platitudes," she said.

Fellow trustee Diane Lorenzen said she would prefer to see a model similar to Tompkins' vision that would ease elementary building crowding and allow students from more than one school to participate in the program. Providing language exposure to all elementary students is another approach she has shared, even though she acknowledges the added expense it would create.

"I just want every child to get the same benefit," Lorenzen said.

Like others with concerns, Lorenzen said she worries about pushing families out of their neighborhood school.

"I think this is fundamental to Missoula. You have a right to go to your neighborhood school," she said.

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