Unifying a School Community:
Parents of Immersion and Non-Immersion Students
The ACIE Newsletter, February 2002, Vol. 5, No. 2
By Teresa Filbert, Principal, Wellwood International School, Baltimore, MD
Wellwood International School in Baltimore County, Maryland began its partial immersion French program in 1993 with one kindergarten class. Since then it has expanded to a kindergarten through grade 5 program with one homeroom in each grade level that is instructed in French for mathematics and French language arts; the other subjects are taught in English. The French immersion students remain together through six years of instruction, and teachers, students, and parents often bond together more as families than classroom communities. While that bonding is a prime positive factor for the success of the immersion program, it presents a challenge for an administrator who is charged with the task of leading a unified learning community despite the existence of a school within a school.
At the same time that our French immersion students, mostly children whose first language is English, are learning French, approximately 15% of the total population of Wellwood International School is learning English. The parents of our ESOL students come from around the world, some to settle permanently in the United States, and others to work or study temporarily through local medical and research institutions. In reality another immersion program exists side by side with the French immersion classes. The majority of Wellwood International÷s students, however, are simply attending their neighborhood school for its routine comprehensive Baltimore County curriculum in a building that has been a fixture in the community for nearly fifty years during a period of increasing diversity.
Although our students interact in positive ways throughout the school year, many of them do not see one another outside the school day as they drive away to their communities each evening. Bringing together the parents of all students, thus, becomes difficult. For years after the formation of the French immersion program, key Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and School Improvement Team (SIT) parents were usually those who had students in the French program. Despite the devotion of these parents to the school, both the faculty and parents began to understand that long term instructional and academic strength for the school meant involving parents from outside the French immersion program to insure buy-in from the total school community.
There was at times a tension within the school community due to the positive publicity given the immersion classes; some parents felt that the immersion students were looked upon as smarter and of more benefit to the school. At one public meeting, a parent expressed a perception that the administration cared more about the immersion program than the rest of the school. While second language learning was valued by the immersion parents and our ESOL population, there seemed to be mixed feelings among some in the school community whose children were not in the immersion classes. As principal, I realized early on in my tenure that I needed to be viewed as the principal of the whole school, not just part of the school. That meant reaching out to parents who had not seen themselves as having the necessary skills or, more importantly, the invitation to participate as active members of the PTA and SIT.
During the 2000-01 school year, a concerted effort began on several fronts to expand both parent participation and the concept of Wellwood International as one unified school community. We began with our French immersion students in grade 5, most of whom had been together since their kindergarten year. While they remained together each morning for their instruction in French, after lunch each day, the French students were combined with the other fifth grade students and grouped in different classes for English language arts. Suddenly these students found themselves interacting with grade level peers from other classes and making new friends outside their French homeroom. The parents of the immersion students also had more opportunities to become acquainted with a broader range of both students and parents through their children. Thus, this practice has continued into the current school year. The children themselves are learning that they have much in common regardless of the program in which they are placed. When a group of students moves together year after year, there is a danger that a program will take on elitist overtones, a trait not at all conducive to nurturing a school community.
Meanwhile the School Improvement Team, a group of teachers, parents, and administrators, was discussing the topic of parent involvement in its monthly meetings. After studying test scores and other data, they realized that increased student achievement across the board would only be possible if more parents became actively involved in their children÷s school life. They set goals for the future that included meetings for parents on topics of interest common to all (for example, the transition from elementary to middle school). As the team began its monthly meetings in September 2001, parents took ownership for personally inviting other parents to be a part of the School Improvement Team. New faces beyond those of our immersion parents are attending meetings and adding fresh perspectives to the team÷s work. The active exploration of parental involvement is continuing throughout the 2001-02 school year.
At the same time, the PTA was focusing on similar issues by seeking to pull in a broader spectrum of parents to its meetings. They have reached out in several ways. For example, during the annual December book fair, the officers scheduled the evening session of the book fair on the same night as their monthly meeting to make it easier for parents to stop in and participate. New parents responded with their presence. Officers have also pulled in several non-immersion parents to work on committees.
While numerous hands and minds are needed to accomplish the many small steps in building a more vibrant learning community with broader parent participation, it is the principal who must set the tone. Any special program in a school, like our partial immersion program, has the potential of pulling resources away from the total school. Parents who seek out such academic opportunities for their children are vocal about requesting additional resources and time. They are doing what we want all involved parents to do lobbying for the best education for their children. However, a principal must strike a balance to insure that the available resources are equitably distributed within the school. In addition, it is critical that parents view her as approachable to all and interested in every child÷s welfare. Credibility is lost if a principal is seen as playing favorites or having pet projects that do not benefit all. In many tough situations over the years, I÷ve found myself reminding parents that I am the principal of all the children at Wellwood International not just the immersion students or the children who follow the rules or any other particular group.
As we approach our tenth year anniversary as an immersion school, we are conducting an internal review of our program. All stakeholders realize that in order to build on past strengths, we must look openly and honestly at where we have been, where we stand, and where we hope to go. Dedicated teachers and parents are reviewing varied facets of our program, including the curriculum, teacher hiring, and adequate books and materials. However, part of our discussion continues to touch on topics related to the meshing of our immersion program with our entire school community.
As the principal of an immersion school, I continue to feel proud of our unique program, the only one of its kind in our school system. Those who established it nearly a decade ago possessed a vision for a rigorous instructional program and a way to broaden young students÷ educational experiences with the knowledge of a second language. The longer I remain at Wellwood International, the more dedicated I am to continuing immersion language learning in our school. However, at the same time, I must strive to meet the ever present challenge of weaving the strengths of a unique instructional program into the fabric of our total school learning community for the benefit of all students and parents.
As we have learned at Wellwood International, there is no easy answer in our quest to involve more parents. Like many schools around our nation, we are trying to pull in parents in an increasingly busy and complex world. Still, we have taken an important step by acknowledging the special challenge posed by a unique program. Our dream is that the benefits of immersion language instruction will be viewed as an asset for all students, a way to provide differentiation of programming to meet students÷ interests, and a unifying factor for a diverse school community.