Milton parents are rallying ahead of meetings Tuesday and Wednesday that could decide the fate of the popular French immersion program in the town’s elementary schools.
At issue is a proposed enrollment cap that could block some children from attending the program. In response to overwhelming parent concern, the Milton School Committee has scheduled a public comment session for Tuesday, the night before the committee is set to vote on a cap and lottery system designed to cope with soaring enrollment.
Students in the immersion program, which starts in first grade, do all of their learning in French for the first couple of years, and then gradually take some of their subjects in English as their studies advance.
Parents who oppose a cap started a Facebook page Oct. 4 titled “Save Milton French Immersion.” It got 100 “likes” on the first day, according to parent Kari McHugh, and had more than 230 “likes” by last Wednesday.
She and the others who run the page never intended to start an online movement, she said. But she was deluged with e-mails from parents after her name was mistakenly listed on a mass e-mail. A small group of parents created the page to handle all the communication.
“It wasn’t an intentional act to start a movement. It was a movement that started itself,” she said.
Proponents of immersion say it exposes children to another language at a young age, when they are best able to absorb it, and that it can improve their scores on standardized tests. Capping enrollment, McHugh said, would breed discontent and division among Milton families, and it would particularly hurt families in which the younger sibling of a French student is denied admission.
“I don’t have a better solution, but I feel like this is going to create a lot of animosity,” she said.
McHugh has a son in third grade in French immersion, and she wants her daughter, now in kindergarten, to be able to enroll next year. Neither of the children’s parents speaks French, she said, but they have learned with their son and traveled to Montreal. The French program represents a significant family commitment, especially for parents who do not speak French, and families should be able to participate together, she said.
Not all parents oppose capping enrollment. Some say a cap in French is necessary to bolster enrollment in the regular program, which is taught in English, for two main reasons. First, they say, English enrollment is shrinking enough that children could go through school with one small group, instead of mixing with others; and second, they say, low numbers in English compromise the experience of special education students, many of whom learn in co-taught English-language classes, integrated with their non-disabled peers.
Special education students take classes with non-disabled students called “role models.” Jerry Vitti, a parent of three children, one of whom is in special education, said Milton needs a cap on French immediately because the English-language program does not have enough role models. “And the role models may or may not be the right kids,” he said. “Not every kid can or should be a role model.”
Vitti has two other children, including a daughter in French immersion. He said he supports the French program, but that the English program must remain strong.
School administrators have incorporated a new emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, known as STEM, into the English program this year, partly to help attract new interest.
It would only take a few more families to choose English next year for the problem to disappear, School Committee chairman Glenn Pavlicek said. “But we have to have a safety net in case in doesn’t work,” he said.
School officials started reviewing enrollment trends in 2010 and talking about a cap this year, after two-thirds of families selected French for their incoming first-graders. In the previous four years, the program had drawn only slightly more than half of first-graders.
The 25-year-old French immersion program is one of only two in the state, along with one in Holliston that uses a lottery system when demand exceeds capacity.
Superintendent Mary Gormley posted a statement on the school district website Wednesday with a link to a “frequently asked questions” document. In it, she said that under her proposal, the district will have between 156 and 182 seats in French for the next school year. Only twice in the past 10 years has enrollment exceeded 182, she said.
Matthew King, a parent, said he understands that enrollment in French could not reach 80 or 90 percent because it would cause problems for special education, but he hopes the School Committee will maximize seats in French and institute a sibling preference.
He would like his younger children to follow their older sister into French. If children have modeled their expectations on what an older sibling is doing, and then they don’t get in, he said, “Who’s to say that they’re going to deal with that well?”
Pavlicek said an existing system that gives preference to siblings to attend the same school as an older sibling will remain in force, but the proposal before the committee does not create any sibling preference for the French program.
The public comment session with the School Committee begins at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Milton High School library. The following day, the School Committee meeting starts at 7 p.m. at the same location.