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Response to “Farwell School Board at odds with tax payers”

Dear Editor,

I would like to respond to the “Farwell School Board at odds with tax payers” letter to the editor that appeared in last week’s paper. I cannot, in good conscience, leave those comments and concerns uncontested.  While there are growing pains with the implementation of any new program, as a parent of a child in the program, I am quite satisfied by the progress my daughter is making.  Personally, I am proud of Farwell Area Schools for having implemented such a forward-thinking program. In addition, this was part of the plan that allowed the district to be chosen as one of 13 Reimagine schools in Michigan a couple years ago.  From the Chinese Immersion program to the Farwell Area Early College, both the administration and the school board have found innovative ways to increase the opportunities available to area youth and I applaud their efforts.

At a recent presentation in Washington, D.C. the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) showcased a Chinese Immersion program at an elementary in Virginia. In the Dirksen Senate Building, a classroom teacher conducted a sample lesson for some of her students. In her elementary, there are about 550 students, of whom 82% receive free and reduced lunch

The idea expressed by Jason Synder that what is happening in Farwell with the immersion program is not a good use of taxpayer money flies contrary to the public statements of the CED. Kolb also went on to discuss America’s “addiction to short-termism, to short-term thinking, to short-term investment” and described a similar immersion program as a long-term investment in students’ success.

Immersion programs are typically an opportunity only afforded to students that either reside in larger urban areas or in affluent school districts. It is amazing that students in Clare and Isabella counties have this real chance at bilingualism

There are some issues of misinformation in the previous letter to the editor.  For example, Synder commented that “the original 100 students have dwindled to 90 due to families moving and parents removing their children from the program”. I would like to point out that when the program began last year, there were only 25 spots available for students in kindergarten compared to the 27 parents that wanted their children involved.  The other half of the day all kindergarteners rotated in for 30 minutes of language and culture instruction and there was a small offering pre-K as well.

This year the program expanded into two sections in first grade as well as two sections of kindergarten, in addition to maintaining some instruction pre-K. The students that entered the first grade immersion had not all had the immersion experience as kindergarteners.  However, consultations with other schools suggested that it would still be beneficial to allow those students into the program. That said, there were 100 spots that were easily filled this year—the number of applicants quadrupled in one year.

While Mr. Synder opines that Farwell is only looking out for “the very top student,” how are 90 of 180 students the “very top” kids? That is half of all students in the first grade and kindergarten and I certainly hope that half of our kids are top students.  I assume that many parents understood that Farwell is offering something to their children that is not available to the majority of kids in Michigan and trusted that Farwell Elementary would make the best decisions it could for its students.

Some of those decisions were based on a foundation of research that looked at students’ scores in full and partial immersion programs, as well as anecdotal evidence. The review of data indicated a general positive effect for immersion education with hypotheses as to how it works. However, Farwell also has tried to tailor the program as best as possible given the costs and the continual legislative downsizing of school budgets to the needs and resources of the community.

While we continuously hear that there is a dip in scores within the first 4 to 5 years or so, surprisingly the results were mixed. In some measures the immersion students performed better, in some measures the results were worse. In kindergarten, the immersion students outperformed the non-immersion students on writing to 30 and slightly fell behind in oral counting. In regard to the English Language Arts data, second trimester data indicates that both groups are in a statistical dead heat. In regard to the first grade students, there were very different circumstances in their entrance into the program. Some had had Chinese immersion instruction for an entire year; others quite simply had the 30 minutes daily. In fact, some students entered the program having had no Chinese in kindergarten because they had transferred from another school district. Even given the circumstances, in some measures the students in immersion outscored students in traditional classrooms and in other measures the opposite was true.

Regardless, think of what this means for half the students at Farwell.  Even in this very early period of testing the students are approximately the same—with the exception that one group of students can perform in two languages and the other group in one. Guess which group understands two languages.

A recent graduate of Farwell High School, Heather Marshall, viewed the Chinese program at the elementary, as well as learning about the 1st-12th grade opportunities in Spanish.  She was in awe of what she saw.  She mentioned that the kids were understanding and doing the equivalent work of her 1st year coursework in Chinese at the university level. However, she commented that the students understood much more and their pronunciation was much better

My kindergarten child does not really know that her experience has been different from the majority of other students and I am thankful Farwell is able to help provide this opportunity for her. I am not expecting the immersion experience to pay off within the first few years. I am looking down the road at what the long-term benefits are for my daughter and despite the bumps along the road; this is the road I want her on.

Sincerely,

Sean Hill

Department Chair for World Languages

Farwell Area Schools