The only French-immersion program in Anne Arundel County public schools has won high marks in the first major review of student performance since it started four years ago.
Researchers found the Crofton Woods Elementary School students who have spent the past few years in intensive French training are speaking the language adeptly while maintaining respectable scores in other courses.
Yet the future of the controversial pilot program remains uncertain. Funding cut last year was not restored this spring, and there has been little discussion so far about whether to expand the intensive language training to other schools.
Language immersion programs--in which young children take some or all their classes in a foreign language--have became a popular option in many school systems since Montgomery County started the nation's first French-immersion program 25 years ago. In Prince George's County, Central High School this spring graduated the mid-Atlantic's first class of seniors to take their entire 13 years of schooling in French.
Yet language immersion has been slow to catch on in Anne Arundel. Crofton Woods Principal Peter Zimmer started his school's immersion program in 1995 with two dozen kindergartners. Many parents flocked to enroll their children in the program, which they found academically more rigorous than traditional instruction. The program grew, adding kindergarten classes while continuing to expand instruction for the first group of students as they moved through school.
But non-immersion families often complained that the French program created a climate of elitism at Crofton Woods and drained resources from the traditional program. Last year, when county school officials confronted a $9 million budget shortfall, the French-immersion program was one of the first items placed on the chopping block. While the first three classes of children--then in kindergarten, first and second grade--were allowed to continue with French training, school board members voted to stop further expansion of the program, ending plans to start teaching French to the next class of kindergartners.
This year, the school board made no move to reinstate funding for the program, so the French-immersion program will just continue this fall for grades two through four--about 63 students total.
The new evaluation, ordered by the school board this spring, sought to see how well French-immersion children were doing with their special language instruction, as well as how they were doing in other subjects compared with children outside the program.
A task force analyzed how Crofton Woods second-graders did on the CTBS/5 test, a common multiple-choice examination. It found that French-immersion students did roughly as well as others in most subjects, except for English grammar, in which they lingered slightly behind the rest two years in a row.
Principal Zimmer said the findings were good news. "Overwhelmingly, the data seems to show that these children are holding their own," he said. "They're reading in English on and above grade level." He noted that the differences between the two groups of children are almost statistically insignificant, because the number of French-immersion students is too small to draw solid scientific conclusions.
The task force also solicited reports from two outside French instructors, who said the children they observed or tested showed remarkable command of the language. Audrey Gaquin, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, found students speaking almost fluent French "with ease and enthusiasm" and "beautiful French accents." Carolyn Moyer, a teacher at the Phoenix Center, was impressed to find that neither the teacher nor the students were relying on gestures or other clues to help communicate.
The evaluation also included a survey of Crofton Woods parents to gauge their satisfaction with the school. The survey did not ask specific questions about the French-immersion program or its impact on the rest of the school. However, task force members note that parents were in general very pleased with the school, and that there was almost no difference in opinion between French-immersion and non-French-immersion families.
"The controversy that was there in the very beginning we're not seeing anymore," said Patricia H. Orndorff, coordinator of foreign languages for the county school system.
However, Orndorff said there has not been any more discussion about expanding the program beyond Crofton Woods.
Some parents are still skeptical of the program. Richard Zipper, whose youngest child just graduated from Crofton Woods's fifth grade, said the school was better off without an expansion of the French program. The former kindergarten French room, he noted, is now a computer room "that can benefit all the students."
"In some ways it's a good program," he said, "but the county could ill afford it."
But the fans of French immersion remain loyal to the program, which they say they wish would continue growing.
"I think education should be a smorgasbord," said Michiel DeVito, whose son, a second-grader, can now correct her own French pronunciation. "I don't see that this takes away. I think this brings another dimension to the whole school."