Pilot effort in French stirs debate Early language study at school called both innovative, elitist; Fairness issue is raised; Board will decide whether to keep, kill immersion program


The $63,277 earmarked for the French immersion program at Crofton Woods Elementary School is a fraction of a percentage point in the superintendent's recommended $427.5 million budget, but it is triggering a firestorm over fairness in Anne Arundel County schools.

The furor is plunging the school system in debates over whether and how the nation's 47th-largest school system should meet the needs of its diverse population of 72,000 students.

Proponents see French immersion as the kind of innovative program that enhances the school system. But opponents call it a luxury that caters to well-off youngsters when there are more pressing needs. Under the pilot program, 30 kindergartners at the school are learning to read, write and speak in French before they are taught the same skills in English.

The county school board is to adopt a budget proposal tomorrow night that either will kill the program or make a financial commitment to keep it going.

Crofton Woods parents raised $20,000, including a $10,000 gift from school board member Michael A. Pace, to help start the program this school year. By the turn of the century, when the program has reached all five grades, it will cost nearly $330,000 annually, according to school projections.

"I think it has to be viewed in terms of two types of costs. Certainly there is a financial cost. But there is also a cost, a high cost, to be paid when we do not pursue programs or strategies that hold promise for instructional benefit for our young people," said Superintendent Carol S. Parham. "Somehow we have to strike the balance between maintenance and improving what we have and exposure to new techniques."

Finding that balance, however, is so troublesome that even school board members who want the program are undecided about keeping it.

"I think when you have limited resources you have to establish priorities. When we have one school that is up for reconstitution and several schools on an alert list, a French immersion program has to be low on the priority list," said board member Michael McNelly.

Van Bokkelen Elementary School is to undergo the reconstitution -- a state-ordered overhaul -- due to single-digit test scores, and several more schools are on an internal warning list.

The countywide dropout rate rose last year while reading scores fell. The superintendent is proposing to save $76,750 by charging summer school students to ride buses. Children at some schools share textbooks.

And parents are clamoring for smaller classes, more teachers, more guidance counselors and fewer classes split between two grades.

"At the moment, French immersion is a luxury when I am not able to meet basic resources," said board member Thomas Twombly, who promised to vote against the program.

Some Crofton Woods parents agree.

"All it is is an enrichment program for kids who are going to do well anyway, high achievers. We need to do something for the low-achieving students," said Karen Koch, whose daughter, Krista, is in second grade at the school.

But the school system should have programs that challenge all students, said Joseph Foster, the board president.

"Are people telling us that they don't want us to have enhancement-type programs?" he said. "If this were a science or a math pilot program, would they still have the same objection?"

Though he voted for the program last year, he is undecided on whether to keep it.

Board member Carlesa Finney said she likes the idea of early language courses, but she is worried about how to expand those programs to other schools.

Yet not all schools within the county have identical courses. For example, Northeast and Broadneck high schools are the only ones that offer finance programs, and Annapolis High School is the only one with a junior Navy ROTC.

"It's philosophical," said Kenneth Lawson, associate superintendent for instruction. "We are big enough, we are complex enough, that we can try different approaches."

Moreover, the school system is not compelled to keep many popular programs, said board member Thomas Florestano, a proponent of French immersion.

"Do they have an obligation to have football? Do you have an obligation to send kids to Spain?" he asked. "You've got honors programs and all sorts of things going on. If you are going to be innovative in learning, you've got to teach it."

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