Two moms of preschoolers push for Spanish Immersion program in Prince George’s County


Delores Millhouse and her son Noah, 4, with Gina Bowler and her daughters Sophia and Francesca Svizzero, ages 3 and 5. The two moms have been lobbying the Prince George’s school system to add a Spanish immersion program. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Delores Millhouse and Gina Bowler don’t have children in the Prince George’s County school system.

But they would like to.

That was the message they shared with members of the county Board of Education, the new schools chief, the county executive and anyone else who would take a few minutes to listen during the past several months as they lobbied the district to add a Spanish immersion program to its academic offerings.

“I am advocating for a school system that nurtures early development of bilingual or multilingual children who excel academically across subjects, interact effectively with people from different cultures and compete successfully in the global marketplace,” Millhouse said during a community forum to discuss the budget late last year. “As a resident of the county, I want to continue residing here, but it is imperative that the county creates innovative program offerings that support the community’s goals of raising children who excel academically and socially on a local and global level.”

After months of visiting schools, making phone calls during lunch breaks and cornering education officials after late-night board meetings, the two moms of preschoolers recently learned that what they called their dive into uncharted waters without a map had paid off. Schools chief Kevin Maxwell recommended, and the school board agreed, to include Spanish immersion programs at three schools in the fiscal year 2015 budget.

“I was just so excited about the number of seats, almost equal to the French immersion,” Millhouse said.

Christian Rhodes, education adviser for County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), said the moms-turned-advocates were tenacious in their quest.

If there was a board meeting, they were there to state their case during public comment.

If there was a community forum, they each took their allotted three minutes at the microphone to talk about Spanish.

If Maxwell introduced himself to a group of residents, they made certain he saw them in the audience.

“That type of advocacy is what we need from parents,” Rhodes said. “That is what parental engagement looks like — pushing the system forward.”

Millhouse and Bowler met during a 45-minute Spanish class on Saturdays for parents and toddlers a couple of years ago in Bowie. Now, the two take their children to a three-hour immersion class on Saturdays in Bethesda.

As Millhouse, who lives in Bowie, and Bowler, who lives in Upper Marlboro, bonded over their young children, they started talking about the county public schools and whether they offered a countywide program that would continue to let their children develop their foreign language skills.

It didn’t.

After scouring information on the school system’s Web site and talking to other moms in the weekend Spanish class, they learned that there was a program at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Chillum and a school in Capitol Heights that was using a grant to incorporate Spanish with its science, technology, engineering and math programs.

Neither program was open to students from outside the county.

They organized a nonprofit group called My Bilingual Child. Its mission: to coordinate parents, community members and other organizations to advocate for an expansion of language immersion.

Millhouse, a special assistant in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer in the District, and Bowler, who once served in the Peace Corps in Kenya, said they are still committed to creating a “robust educational system,” not just for their children, but for all Prince George’s children.

“I can’t sit and complain if I don’t do my part,” Millhouse said.

And they are still making their voices heard.

On Tuesday night, Bowler attended a community forum sponsored by the Prince George’s County Council to discuss college and career readiness.

When she stepped to the microphone, she thanked Maxwell for including the Spanish immersion program in the budget. She continued her lobbying effort by pressing the council, which has to approve the school budget, to keep the line item in the spending plan.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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