French immersion program in Arundel school stirs debate

February 20, 1996|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

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.

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.

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