The Eanes ISD board of trustees voted unanimously to continue a Spanish language immersion pilot program in kindergarten through fifth grade at a Dec. 10 meeting.

Dozens of parents spoke about the program, almost all in support of continuing it and including some whose children have behavioral or learning differences. Many cited their children’s positive experience in the program, which they said had improved their confidence, resilience and readiness for an increasingly globalized world.

A handful of parents said they had moved to the district because of the immersion program.

Jennifer Ward is the mother of a second-grader enrolled in the Spanish immersion program at Cedar Creek Elementary School and a member of the Spanish immersion study group.

Before moving to Central Texas, Ward said she and her husband used to live in Palo Alto, California, whose school district prides itself on its language-immersion programs.

When EISD launched its own program in 2017, it “ finally caught up to the rest of the world,” Ward said, speaking in support of the program.

A handful of teachers, however, also spoke at the meeting, raising concerns about inadequate support for immersion instructors and students’ needs going unmet.

The program is a house that may collapse, said Chrissi Gallaway, a third-grade teacher at Barton Creek Elementary School, which offers the immersion program.

“We must think of our students inside that house,” Gallaway said.

The pilot program

The board unanimously approved the three-year pilot program in February 2017, and it started in the 2017-18 school year among kindergarten students at Cedar Creek Elementary School.

District administrators expanded the program to include Bridge Point Elementary School that same year and then Eanes Elementary School and Barton Creek Elementary School prior to the 2018-19 school year.

The pilot program operated according to a one-way model, in which English speakers are taught core subjects in both English and Spanish. This requires two teachers, one who speaks English and another who speaks Spanish.

Across Texas, 18.5% of students are bilingual or English learners. EISD counts 2.2% of students as bilingual or English learners.

Board member Ellen Balthazar said that a consistent ask from parents is increased diversity.

"I cannot fathom how we would walk away from a diversity program now that we have it," Balthazar said.

This school year, 434 EISD students in kindergarten through second grade are enrolled in 20 Spanish immersion classes. This amounts to about half of the student population in those grades, according to a report on the pilot compiled by the study group and presented to trustees.

Research indicates it takes around six years of immersive learning for students to achieve fluency, which is one of the program’s objectives, Ward told board members.

Successes and challenges

According to a parent-staff survey about the immersion program administered this fall, 95.4% of parent participants with children enrolled in the program said they would continue to enroll their child if the pilot was extended beyond the second grade.

Sixteen immersion teachers participated in the survey, out of a total of 20, and 56.3% said they would recommend the program continue past the second grade.

Among parents and teachers not involved in the immersion program, more than 70% said they do not support it continuing, which board members said was worrying to them.

According to the report, students enrolled in the immersion program outperformed, on average, students not enrolled in the program on math and reading assessments conducted earlier this school year.

One challenge to the program is bilingual teacher recruitment. Since the pilot began in the 2017-18 school year, four bilingual teachers involved in the program resigned, but all were replaced.

To extend the pilot through the fifth grade in the four current schools, the district will need to hire 14 additional full-time bilingual teachers over the next four years.

According to the Texas Education Agency, around 7% of teachers in Central Texas are qualified to teach in a bilingual program, compared to 19.5% of students in the area who require bilingual instruction.

Board members discussed the likely scenario in which the district would need to raise its stipend for bilingual teachers to compete with area school districts, many of which have much larger Spanish-speaking populations and thus a greater demand for Spanish-speaking teachers.

Some parents also raised concerns about the program in their survey responses, including about class size, which is larger in the immersion program due to high demand.

This school year the annual cost per student enrolled in the program is $374, which is lower than other optional programs offered by the district, including athletics and fine arts, according to the study group’s report. This cost is estimated to decrease in the coming school years.

Moving forward

EISD Superintendent Tom Leonard said that the program will be improved, and concerns will be addressed moving forward.

“I want the teachers in the room to know that I know you need more help,” board Vice President John Havenstite said, acknowledging concerns some had raised. “I know you need more resources in your classroom. I know that the workload that you’re carrying is heavier than your teammates’. I know that we can provide you with more leadership that we have provided in the past.”