VALPARAISO — Dozens of Valparaiso parents called upon Valparaiso Community Schools officials Tuesday night to rethink a decision to end its popular Dual Language Immersion Pilot Program at Parkview Elementary School.
The Valparaiso School Board met in a regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night, a week after school officials announced it would be ending the popular program at the end of the academic year.
More than 100 community members attended the meeting, some wearing their “Soy equipo DLI” T-shirts and “Don’t deny DLI” stickers.
Public comment at the meeting extended well beyond two hours and an online change.org petition launched by parents has secured more than 2,500 signatures.
“We want to debate,” Parkview parent Mac McElhaney said Tuesday night. “We want to talk about why this is important.”
The parents requested district officials reverse a decision to shutter the program so that more community input could be considered in a future evaluation of the Spanish language immersion classes at Parkview.
Some asked for the topic to be put on the agenda for the district’s January board meeting. One community member asked for a special meeting just to weigh the merits of the program.
"I do enjoy the program very much," Superintendent Julie Lauck said Tuesday. "If I could make the decision just based on that, I promise you it would be a no-brainer for us. There are a lot of other things that we have to take into consideration and I think that we're open to discussion on those items and taking a step back and looking at things to move forward in a positive direction."
In a letter to parents last Wednesday, interim Parkview Principal Brandie Muha announced the termination of the program and that the school's longtime principal Anne Wodetzki would be resigning for "personal reasons" in a decision that surprised many in the Parkview community.
The school district wrote that it was ending the program because of higher expectations set for student learning outcomes, concerns for long-term sustainability of the program and an inability to meet "the community expectations of neighborhood schools."
Parkview is one of eight elementary schools in the Valparaiso district. Some parents have questioned why the program couldn't have been reduced in scale within the Parkview school rather than eliminated altogether.
Parents also spoke not only about the strength they see in their students test scores at Parkview, an A school in the state’s accountability grades, but of the immeasurable benefits of the DLI programs: students building friendships with native Spanish speakers, watching movies in another language, writing letters to Santa in Spanish.
They asked that the district give students more time and evaluate their improvement once the earliest classes of DLI students enter middle school.
Others pointed to the science behind language learning and job opportunities that could be opened up through multilingualism.
"The medical field recognizes the benefits of a bilingual brain," said Amanda Mathews, a Parkview parent. "At Parkview, my daughter is exposed to diversity and inclusivity — things that I wanted for her that I did not have in elementary school."
In a letter to the school board, superintendent and Valparaiso community distributed at the Tuesday night board meeting, Parkview parents point to a lost investment in students and the community should the district move forward with plans to abandon the DLI program. The earliest a student can take foreign language classes in the Valparaiso Community Schools district absent DLI is in seventh grade.
District administrators are currently considering changing that to eighth grade in a move Assistant Superintendent Jim McCall said will expand middle school language access to all VCS students. About 70% of middle school students are engaged in the district’s world language program this year, McCall said Tuesday.
"There has been an ongoing discussion with VCS administrators and the former Parkview principal since the beginning of the program," Valparaiso schools spokeswoman Allison Hadley told The Times in a statement last week. "Discussion topics included data analysis and feedback from students, staff and parents. Ultimately, the decision was made to discontinue the program by VCS administrators and the former Parkview principal."
Members of Wodetzki's family disputed the district's account on Friday, watching a parent-organized school protest from across the street.
"She is opposed to this program going away," the principal's brother-in-law Brian Wodetzki told The Times. "She loved this program. She sought funding for the program. She poured her heart and soul into the program."
The Parkview DLI program is one of only a couple dozen similar programs in the state. In Northwest Indiana, only the School City of Hammond operates a similar Spanish immersion curriculum at the elementary school level in its Washington Irving Elementary School.
Parkview's DLI program was funded in its first year by an $82,000 grant from the state. The district has funded the program every year since.
Some parents also raised their support of the district’s passed May 2015 referendum, which advertised expansions in language learning with taxpayer support.
“Some referendum dollars are used at Parkview, however, the discontinuance of the DLI program will not affect those dollars,” Hadley said in an email last week.
Lauck said Tuesday night sustainability concerns were in reference to a difficulty finding instructors who could teach high-quality course material in Spanish.
“It’s not a dollars and cents decision, it’s human capital from our perspective,” Lauck said. “It’s a challenge every year filling those positions.”
School Board President Rob Behrend said the board needs to take time to digest public comments and academic indicators — some of which are still under embargo by the state — before proceeding forward. He said the topic will likely be added to next month's board meeting, which will be Jan. 23, according to notice given by the school corporation on Wednesday.
*This story has been corrected to reflect Parkview parents Amanda Mathews' quote and the date of the school board's January meeting. The Times regrets these errors.