Inside Report: Proposed Lafayette public school immersion changes sparking controversy

By Marsha Sills

Acadiana bureau

Lafayette Parish public school officials may have made at least two oversights in their attempt to expand the district’s foreign-language immersion programs.

Nearly 1,200 students in the district attend schools where they are taught their academic subjects in French, Spanish or Mandarin Chinese. Over the next six years, the school district wants to increase enrollment in the immersion programs to 4,500 students.

To help chart the growth, the district organized a task force this fall to draft a six-year plan to expand immersion opportunities and increase access, particularly in the southern part of the parish.

A final version of the plan, which goes to the School Board on March 6, is based on input from task force members and responses from the public via telephone and online surveys.

Until recently, the task force proposal didn’t have direct feedback from parents and guardians of students not enrolled in immersion programs — an oversight the district tried to remedy at a Feb. 5 meeting at Myrtle Place Elementary, which may be transformed into an immersion-only campus by August.

When first presented in December, the proposal would have rezoned 200 nonimmersion students at the school, but now the proposals calls for allowing older students in grades two through four to remain at Myrtle Place while rezoning 55 current nonimmersion kindergarten and first-grade students and an incoming 30 kindergarten students. The plan would also move French immersion classes now at Alice Boucher Elementary and S.J. Montgomery Elementary to Myrtle Place.

Of the 30 parents at the Feb. 5 meeting, a handful questioned part of the proposal to rezone the nonimmersion children to S.J. Montgomery, which has a state performance label of D, and the district’s lack of communication with parents of nonimmersion students about the major change.

“We live here. We pay taxes here. Our children should go here,” said Phil Auter, whose daughter was set to begin kindergarten at Myrtle. Auter and his wife, Aurora, said they bought a house in the neighborhood because of the school and want their daughter to have the same opportunity as her older siblings to attend their neighborhood school.

The outreach to nonimmersion parents came a week after the district’s Jan. 31 deadline to apply for schools-of-choice programs, which enable students to attend schools out of their zone — another oversight a few parents criticized during the Feb. 5 meeting.

The deadline can’t be extended, but priority placement in available spots following the computerized lottery is one option the district is exploring, officials said.

Olivia Regard, a mother of French immersion students, said in an email to The Advocate that the immersion plan isn’t just about Myrtle Place, but also about expanding immersion opportunities to students in other languages and improving student access.

“Thousands of students will have the opportunity to participate in the language immersion pathway if the plan is approved,” Regard wrote. “Additionally, the statistics show the immersion students perform better on the standardized tests mandated by the state.”

In a recent phone interview, district world language specialist Nicole Boudreaux said she feared the media coverage of the Feb. 5 meeting focused on a few parents’ opposition.

“All the people who were for the proposal were not talking,” Boudreaux said. “It skewed the look of the meeting.”

Boudreaux said more town hall-style meetings with parents are planned Feb. 19 at S.J. Montgomery Elementary, Feb. 25 at Alice Boucher Elementary, and Feb. 26 at the School Board office.

Marsha Sills covers education for The Advocate’s Acadiana bureau. She can be reached at msills@theadvocate.com.