A Circuit Court judge cleared the way yesterday for the Montgomery County school system to hold a lottery to choose children from across the county to attend a special Chinese language program in Potomac, though the process is being appealed to the State Board of Education.
For students in the program at Potomac Elementary School, part of the curriculum is taught in English and part, including math and science, is in Chinese. It's similar to county Spanish and French immersion programs, with one key exception: Those programs are open to students throughout the county, but the Potomac program was created for children living within that school's boundaries. Starting this school year, four spots were reserved for outsiders; others were available only if not enough Potomac children enrolled.
In February, the Montgomery school board answered the call of parents elsewhere in the county -- many of them either ethnic Chinese or the parents of adopted Chinese children -- who have fought to enroll their children in the immersion program by voting unanimously to open the 25 seats in the next kindergarten class to a countywide lottery. Eventually, board members said, the program might be moved to a different site.
This decision disappointed Potomac parents who have nurtured and protected the program as their own for eight years and resisted changes that would bring more students to a crowded school. Mostly, it angered parents who moved to Potomac because, they said, officials had assured them that doing so would secure their children spots in the Chinese program. Now their children are subject to the luck of the draw.
Amber Wong Hsu had moved from Rockville, impressed particularly by a Chinese New Year celebration when she visited the school. "It was incredible," Hsu said, "where they celebrate Chinese and the language instead of being ostracized for being Chinese."
Hsu and other parents filed appeals to the State Board of Education, contending that Montgomery's decision, made during a meeting about budget matters and not listed on the agenda, violated the school system's policy on including community views in the decision-making process. In addition, Hsu filed a motion in Montgomery County Circuit Court asking that the lottery be delayed until the state board decides the matter later this month.
Siblings of currently enrolled students have priority in enrollment; 12 have applied for next year's kindergarten, according to a school system spokesman. For the remaining 13 spots, 37 children, seven from the Potomac Elementary district, applied for the lottery.
One parent, Diane Berinstein, said she and her family chose Potomac when moving from Connecticut because they thought their "very bright young child" would thrive in Chinese immersion. "We decided to settle for a school system that is not the best because we could take advantage of the language opportunities," she said.
But many parents just as interested in Chinese immersion say that moving to Potomac isn't an option, given the cost of housing.
Manette Niu was one of many parents who had pressed the school board for years to open the program countywide. "It wasn't equitable that only one school district had access to the program" in an area, Niu said, where "most people can't even dream of moving."
School board Vice President Reginald M. Felton (Northeastern County) brought the idea of a county lottery to the board in February because, he said, it was only fair to bring Chinese immersion in line with the other programs. Potomac parents, he said in an interview, "should not have been promised they would automatically get in forever."
At the court hearing yesterday, attorney Patrick Clancy, arguing for Superintendent Jerry D. Weast and the county school board, said that this was an issue to be played out first in front of the State Board of Education, not the justice system. Hsu's attorney, Barbara Fleck, contended that while she agreed the case should be decided by the state board, delaying the lottery would allow that appeal process to continue with purity.
"If the county holds this lottery, it will unleash a chain of events . . . that will greatly inconvenience families on both sides of the issue," Fleck said.
Circuit Judge William J. Rowan III granted the school system's motion to dismiss Hsu's request. Because the state appeal had not been decided, he said, administrative remedies had not been exhausted, and it would be inappropriate to delay the lottery. "The relief sought by the plaintiff is premature at this point," Rowan said.