As Montgomery County looks to bring greater diversity to its popular language-immersion programs, school officials have proposed giving extra consideration to students who face economic disadvantages and scaling back preferences for siblings of students in the programs.
Facing concern about racial and ethnic disparities in some of its highly sought academic programs, the Maryland school system is rethinking how it runs the programs to increase access to minority students.
A report in March sparked debate about what the high-performing district should do to increase the number of black and Hispanic students enrolled in magnet, gifted and language programs. One of the report’s recommendations for language immersion was to end automatic admissions for siblings to make access to the lottery-based program more equitable.
But many parents spoke passionately against that idea, citing educational benefits when siblings learn the same language and can practice with each other, especially when parents do not speak the language the program teaches.
The county school board tentatively approved changes in December that would keep practices the same for current families under a grandfathering provision, but the move would reshape the future admissions process. The changes, part of a broader policy on school transfers, are up for public comment until Feb. 3.
If the board gives its final approval, the lottery for 2018-2019 would be weighted, giving extra consideration to siblings of enrolled students, children from lower-income families and certain other factors the superintendent may identify.
“We’re trying to find a policy that creates more equity in the lottery process,” said school board member Patricia O’Neill, who proposed the new approach. “This takes care of all the families who are currently in the program, and it still gives a nod or an advantage to siblings. Hopefully, we will gain a more diverse pool of applicants.”
Seven elementary schools offer lottery-based language-immersion classes in Montgomery, and there are many more applicants than seats. The school system offers the programs in Spanish, French and Chinese.
Though the programs use lottery-based admissions, they are racially uneven. The study found that white students account for 29 percent of kindergartners in the school district but 44 percent of the kindergartners invited into language immersion. Hispanic students account for 31 percent of kindergartners districtwide but just 19 percent of those invited into the special programs.
Many say that a big part of the problem is a lack of awareness, with families unfamiliar with the programs when applications are due, a date that falls months before students enter kindergarten.
District officials, who have engaged in outreach, say they expect to roll out a more robust plan in January to better reach underrepresented families.
But some say that another problem is inequities caused by what is called the “sibling link” that allows siblings to bypass the lottery.
Siblings account for nearly 1 in 5 applications to language immersion, according to the March report, and at three of the seven immersion schools, siblings represented 40 percent or more of the applicants. Nearly 53 percent of sibling applicants were white in 2013-2014, the year of the report’s focus.
Many school district leaders and parents say the underlying problem is that Montgomery needs more language programs. Superintendent Jack Smith has proposed a budget for next year that he says would add four to five dual-language programs.
“There is an insatiable demand for language in the school system at the earliest possible age,” O’Neill said. “I personally would like to see language in every school.” The idea is more than the district can afford, she said, “but language programs should not be restricted to those lucky few who win the lottery.”
Some hope the board will reconsider its proposal after the public comment period.
School board member Rebecca Smondrowski said she supports the weight for students with economic disadvantages but would like to keep the current admissions practices for siblings.
“Having multiple members of a household being able to speak to each other, practice together, use the language does make a difference, and I think it has a positive effect on the learning,” she said.
Smondrowski said adding more seats to language programs is key — as is a more extensive outreach effort to families of underrepresented students. The school system should take both steps before the board considers ending the provision for sibling admissions, she said.
Emily Bleimund, a parent of two with a son in French immersion at Sligo Creek Elementary School, said she and others are grateful the grandfathering provision will mean their younger children get to attend, but they are concerned for immersion families of the future.
Many parents would be willing to help the district do community outreach, she said, saying the board should not change its sibling practices until it sees how much improvement could be made by increasing awareness of the programs, especially in underserved communities.
“If there are families that would participate, but for knowing about the program, that’s what we need to work on,” Bleimund said.