Dozens of parents showed up to a special East Hampton School Board meeting on Monday ready to fight for an innovative dual-language program at the John M. Marshall Elementary School that for the last four years has laid the groundwork for students to become fluent in both English and Spanish and eventually graduate high school with the coveted “seal of biliteracy.”
The families who first bought into the program were essentially taking part in a giant experiment: Could native English-speaking children flourish in reading, writing, math, and even science with fully half their school day taught in Spanish? Data presented Monday night by school administrators showed that by the end of the second grade, the kids were indeed doing just that, having made up for shortfalls in their first year in the program.
But those who geared up for battle instead found themselves — at the end of the nearly two-hour meeting — applauding Adam Fine, the East Hampton School District superintendent, who formally recommended continuing the program. “I think it best serves our population — both populations,” he said, referring to children who are native English speakers and those who are native Spanish speakers.
The crowd of at least 100 people at the meeting, some children among it, was a measure of the program’s popularity. For about 15 Spanish-speaking people who needed help understanding the presentation and discussion, a district employee used a wireless headphone system to translate in real-time.
Karen Kuneth, principal of John Marshall, and Tiffany Patterson, director of English-as-a-new-language programs across the district, explained that the dual language program meets state requirements for bilingual education for non-native English-speaking students. If the district were to discontinue the program, it would still find itself having to provide significant bilingual resources anyway to more than 40 percent of its 502 elementary school students. There are currently 159 children in the program, which this year runs from kindergarten through third grade. Dual language “is a more inclusive model,” Ms. Patterson said, that has been proven to bridge cultural differences and language barriers.
She and Ms. Kuneth presented test scores that also measured children’s achievement in the general education and integrated special and general education classrooms. With an asterisk that some data was collected during the pandemic, when classes were virtual and many children struggled, all kindergarteners gained less than a full standard-grade-level of reading skills. Both the first and second grade dual-language cohorts slightly outpaced the general education and integrated cohorts in ascending the reading-level scale. Children not enrolled in the dual-language program have Spanish lessons two to three times a week in a curriculum known as foreign language for elementary students, or FLES for short.
In a survey of parents who signed up for the opt-in program, more than 80 percent said they were satisfied or very satisfied with it, 89 percent said they are seeing progress in their children’s development of skills in their non-native language, and about 86 percent reported seeing their children “show excitement about learning another language.” Not every participating family responded to the survey.
Richard Burns, who retired in June 2021 after nearly nine years as East Hampton’s very popular superintendent, spoke up not as a school administrator, but as the proud grandfather of a dual-language student. He implored his former colleagues to find the resources to expand it, saying that “this program is working. I know you’ll find a solution somehow. . . . Every school district is facing this, but we always rise to the challenge.”
Marissa Cangiolosi, who has a son in the dual-language cohort, told the school board, “You’re literally growing their brains in this program.” She said she was learning along with him.
“Communication is freedom. When you are giving people another language to speak, you are giving people freedom to communicate — and power. We want to provide that to as many students as we can.”
Jorge Cruz, who is originally from Costa Rica and has a third-grader in the dual-language program, thanked the school district for offering it. “I think it’s a wonderful job that you guys are doing. It’s a tremendous amount of work,” he said, calling the program “a big service” to the Spanish-speaking community. Addressing the many Spanish-speaking families in the room, he urged them to get more involved in the school. “We are not doing that enough,” he said.
Along with the pros of the program, administrators acknowledged some cons. It’s usually hard to hire excellent bilingual teachers, they said, though that has started to change. And the school’s relatively small elementary-school enrollment (by Long Island standards) means students who opt in to the program are almost guaranteed to spend all of their years at John Marshall with the same group of classmates, and their peers in general and integrated classrooms will be grouped in a similar way.
One parent who did not identify herself said she had pulled her son out of the program — one of seven third-grade families who had done so since kindergarten. “Please do whatever is best for your child . . . but please look at the other side,” she said. “It wasn’t the best for my son to start off that way, plus he does have an I.E.P. [individualized education program]. That program was not right for all learners — the support is not necessarily there for that type of learner.”
School board members were frank about one of the challenges associated with expanding the program: finding room in the budget to hire more teachers.
“When we put this program in place, there was not money to do it for fourth and fifth grades. We wanted to do the program, so we said, ‘Let's start it as a pilot,’ ” said Jackie Lowey, a school board member.
She recalled years when East Hampton was forced to lay off teachers under the constraints of the tax-cap legislation, and a board colleague, Christina DeSanti, explained that the current dual-language teachers were hired without impacting the budget because other, long-term teachers had retired.
J.P. Foster, the board president, called it “money that we will do our best to find,” but cited the tax-cap rules, which require a supermajority of at least 60 percent voter approval to pass an over-the-cap budget. “We can pierce the cap,” he said. “If that’s where we go, then we’re going to need your help to do so, because parents are the ones who do vote.”
Toward the end of the meeting, he added, “We’re not going to not support something that you guys want.”