Paxson School teacher Mikell Fox helps kindergartners Wella Hein and Julian Eaton during the Spanish immersion portion of their day in this 2018 file photo.

Paxson Elementary School is one of the most crowded schools in the Missoula County Public Schools district for a reason. In addition to crammed attendance boundaries, parents have long sought to enroll their students for the chance to participate in the school's dual-language Spanish immersion program.

In Paxson's model, students spend half the day receiving their common core instruction in Spanish. Many Paxson students then feed into Washington Middle School, which also offers dual-language immersion instruction and is currently going through the process to become an accredited International Baccalaureate World School.

However, not all parents feel their students benefit from the district's immersion programs. At a Tuesday school board meeting, a number of parents of students at Paxson and Washington expressed concerns over growing pains associated with those programs.

"It feels like were sacrificing her math skills for Spanish," Kelly McDonald, a Paxson parent, said at the meeting.

McDonald said her daughter, a second-grader, comes home from school in tears because she doesn't understand math lessons that are taught to her in Spanish.

Parents' concerns focused on educational equity, support for students struggling to learn standardized curriculum in a foreign language, and "Band-Aid" solutions for the growing number of students who are overqualified for the Spanish courses currently offered at the middle school level.

"I’ve tried to help my kids and their friends and teachers as they’ve tried to make their way through the immersion experiment," Evie Taylor, a parent of two kids at Paxson, said at the meeting as she teared up.

"My basic objection of the program has always been that this is a public school. Our job is to educate and support every child who attends. I don’t feel like this is what’s happening," Taylor said.

Taylor told the Missoulian she believes the immersion program at Paxson leaves out students who don't do well in a multilingual setting, in addition to kids who have behavioral problems or disabilities, or may already be speaking another language at home.

"It's very easy for parents to say it's a great program when their child is not one of the ones negatively impacted by the immersion," Teresa Clark, a Paxson parent, told the Missoulian.

While some parents have shared their feelings about educational equity at prior board meetings, last Tuesday other parents raised new concerns associated with the expansion of the programs as Paxson Elementary students transition to middle school.

"There has not been deliberate planning with the kids going to middle school, and what’s this is going to look like when they come to high school?" said Sarah Pohl, a parent of students at Paxson and Washington and an English teacher at Sentinel High School.

Currently, many Paxson Elementary students feed into Washington Middle School. Although Washington offers two class periods of Spanish language immersion, incoming Paxson students who already have years of Spanish under their belt are overqualified for Washington's level of Spanish instruction.

Pohl attended the meeting Tuesday to oppose a temporary plan to send a group of about 20 qualified Washington middle schoolers to Sentinel High School to participate in a Spanish II class.

Pohl's daughter was a part of the founding cohort of students who went through the Spanish language immersion program at Paxson during the first year of the program. Her daughter, now a seventh grader, is one of the students who qualified for the Spanish II class.

"Much of it has seemed like it's a reactive process," Pohl said. "It’s like they knew it was coming and they didn't really do anything about it ahead of time."

Sentinel Principal Ted Fuller emphasized that the plan to send middle schoolers to Sentinel is only a temporary solution for the 2019-20 school year while the district comes up a long-term solution. Fuller also said he's only able to speak about Spanish offered at the high school level.

The Missoulian did not hear back from district administrators or school administrators at Washington and Paxson by press time.

In order to accommodate the incoming middle schoolers, Sentinel is combining five sections of Spanish classes offered to high schoolers into four, and creating a fifth section for the middle schoolers. As a result, high schoolers will be placed in classes with a higher student-to-teacher ratio.

"As a teacher, I know the difference between 24 and 30 in a classroom is organized and chaos," Pohl said.

Fuller said this year, the school was able to absorb the incoming students while staying within state accreditation standards, but said he recognizes the incoming students will affect all of Sentinel's students in Spanish II classes.

"I think dual language immersion is a fantastic opportunity for learners," Fuller said. "But now that we're seeing this cohort getting to middle school with more coming along behind them, I don't think the 'walk to high school solution' is sustainable or appropriate."

Fuller said he hopes the district is able to fund additional middle school staff in the long term.

Most of the parents who spoke at the meeting agreed there are benefits to multilingualism, and several other parents in attendance spoke in support of the immersion programs. 

Taylor said even with the benefits, the district needs to ensure the program works for every child.

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