The French Immersion Program debate explained

By Jim Wilkerson

One of the major news stories in Lincoln Parish last week was the discontinuance of the French Immersion program for the school year 2022-2023. Though small in size, the group that supports Immersion made sure it was heard – in the news, on Ruston Rants, at the School Board meeting, and at the Q & A session held by Superintendent Ricky Durrett at Glen View.

Of course, there are two sides to the discussion. First, the Journal will begin by laying out the central arguments expressed by parents and advocates who want to keep the program.

Some parents see Immersion not just as a language program, but a way to help children with learning disorders develop. Rachel Shamburger Daniel, for instance, said she has an 8-year-old with oppositional defiant disorder enrolled in French Immersion.

“He started second grade at Glen View, and it was a disaster,” Daniel said. “We were fixing to do IEP (Individualized Development Plan)…So, I talked to the principal. She was very encouraging. We demoted him and put him in French. He has flourished…He wants to go to school. He wants to learn. So, it has created a love of learning that he didn’t have before.”

Other parents see Immersion as an invaluable program that puts Lincoln Parish above other areas in terms of education.

Chelsea Nash said that Immersion was one of the primary reasons she stayed in Ruston after graduating from Louisiana Tech: “I had a kid in college. When she got older, I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to move before she gets in the school system.’ But then I found out about the French program and decided to stay. So, really the French program is one of the main reasons I stayed in Ruston. Now that the program is gone, what’s stopping me from leaving?”

Sarah Duke said that her second-grade son is becoming fluent in French because of Immersion.

“Just two weeks ago, Carson told me he has started to have dreams in French, which is a sign of fluency,” she said. “At 7 years old, my second grader is almost fluent in a second language, and he is one of the younger ones in his class! To have that advantage and that grasp on the French language ripped out from underneath him and his peers is a devastating and very unfortunate disservice to every student involved in the Immersion program.”

It’s not just parents advocating for the continuance of the program, but state officials and medical professionals as well.

Executive Director of CODOFIL Peggy Feehan; World Language Specialist Michèle Braud of the Louisiana Department of Education; Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Cynthia S. Pippins; and Dr. Claudia Orellana, MD, all wrote open letters to the Lincoln Parish School Board, urging it to keep Immersion.

In a packet distributed last week to the School Board are LDoE statistics of LEAP and ACT test scores for Immersion and non-Immersion students. In every category, Immersion students scored significantly higher than their non-Immersion counterparts.

Finally, parents are generally upset about two things (besides the way in which their children received the news that Immersion would be discontinued):

First, they see the premature ending of the program as a breach of contract by the School Administration because former Superintendent Mike Milstead promised parents that Immersion would remain in place until the fifth grade.

Second, they argue that the reason for the program’s low attendance is due to a complete lack of advertising by the Administration.

On the other side of the issue, the Administration listed three central concerns that contributed to its decision to discontinue Immersion.

First, it argues that the local demographics seem to justify a Spanish, rather than French, Immersion program.

“We looked at our demographics at schools,” Durrett told the crowd at the Glen View Q & A. “We knew we had a growing Hispanic population here, and that’s a subgroup that has traditionally struggled at school. So, that was part of the discussion, looking at those kids, which led us to looking at Immersion. Part of our discussion in that was ‘Why French? Why not Spanish?’”

Second, the Administration is concerned about the dropout rates for Immersion students.

“We had 30 kids start out in Pre-K. There’s 24 [Immersion] students in second grade right now, but 15 of them are from the original group. So, we lost about half of those,” Durrett noted. “And then the second group had 22 in Pre-K. That group’s down to 20, 11 of them being from the original group…And the third class started out with 17 and dropped to 14.”

Durrett also referenced the Evangeline Parish School District that is apparently having trouble retaining Immersion students.

“We’re talking about families that have parents, grandparents, great grandparents that are all speaking French…If they’re having that challenge, how are we going to sustain [Immersion]?” he asked.

Third, the Immersion program is not fully funded by grants, and the Administration is responsible for a large share of the funding.

Durrett explained to the audience, “I’ve been asked, ‘Why would we cut a program that is fully financed through grants?’ We do get some grant money, but it doesn’t fully finance it…Right now, we figured [Immersion] to cost about $175,000 this year over what we get from the grants, counting the teachers, some of the supplies, and some other things that we provide. That totals out to about $2,500 extra per kid in Immersion.”

When asked about the statistics from the LDoE website that show Immersion students have better test scores than non-Immersion students, Durrett questioned the automatic assumption that a single variable is responsible for the higher test scores.

“Here’s the question,” he said. “Are these kids successful because of French Immersion? That may be a factor. But are they really successful because they’ve got involved parents who are sitting around the table at night and who are supporting them in their work? I don’t think just French Immersion is why they’re successful.”

When asked about the Administration’s concerns over LEAP tests, which Immersion students moving to third grade will be required to take next year, Durrett responded with a question: “Are these kids going to get what they need for science, social studies, and math going forward, with a teacher that’s coming and learning new standards for the first time in a new country right off the bat?” He was skeptical that they would.

It was decided at the end of the Q & A meeting on Dec. 9 that the Administration and certain Immersion advocates will meet again soon to discuss if/how the Immersion program can stay.

The Journal will follow these discussions moving forward. 

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