BY BEN DEJARNETTE
Room 6. Eugene’s 4J school district has dozens of classrooms just like it, at least from the outside. The plain blue door at the entrance conceals a special world within.
As the class’s 33 students trickle in from the cold, damp air on this Tuesday morning, Margarita Field greets them all, one by one. The early birds work on art, chat furtively or climb on chairs. After all, they are first-graders.
When the morning bell rings, the room quiets down.
“Buenos días, clase,” Field says, smiling warmly at her pupils. “Buenos días, señora,” the class responds in singsongy unison.
At Buena Vista Spanish Immersion School, Field begins every morning this way, and always in Spanish. Buena Vista is one of four language immersion elementary schools in the district, where foreign language education is a top priority.
“I think we have had almost three decades of language immersion alternative schools in Eugene,” says Kerry Delf, the communication director for Eugene’s 4J school district. “There has been a strong interest in school choice and educational alternatives in our region. It’s been something our community has cared about a lot over the years.”
A System of Choice
Eugene’s 4J system consists of both neighborhood schools—the default option for students in each region of the city—and alternative schools, which employ educational approaches ranging from language immersion to project-based learning.
The district’s school choice policy allows families to apply to any neighborhood or alternative school in 4J, but bus transportation is only provided to a student’s neighborhood school. A lottery system decides admission, leaving a student’s access to the popular language immersion programs up to luck of the draw.
Tim and Kathy Bruegman’s children were accepted to Buena Vista in last year’s lottery. Their twins Elle and Beaux are in Field’s first grade class, where they are being exposed to Spanish for the first time.
“[We applied for] the benefit of them having that second language,” Kathy said. “If you’re bilingual you’re much more marketable when it comes to applying for jobs.”
Although the merits of early second-language instruction are still debated among experts, advocates say children learn languages better than adults and perform better in school when they have been exposed to a second language. 4J officials count themselves among the believers.
When the district opened Yujin Gakuen Japanese Immersion School in 1988, it became the first public school system in the country to offer Japanese immersion at the elementary school level. The district is also home to Charlemagne French Immersion Elementary School, as well as a dual immersion Spanish program at River Road/El Camino del Río Elementary School.
The Equity Dilemma
Despite the district’s commitment to school choice, critics charge that language immersion opportunities are not accessible to less affluent families, resulting in schools that are stratified by status. At Buena Vista, only 20 percent of students qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch (FRL) program, well below the district average of 41 percent. By comparison, 76 percent of students at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, a neighborhood school, qualify for FRL.
“Research has demonstrated the value in language immersion,” says Nancy Willard, a parent of three and a frequent critic of 4J policies. “The problem is that we’re delivering language immersion to a select group of students. Programs designed for the 1 percent, that’s what we’ve got. This is a program designed to support the elite.”
Eugene schools also remain largely divided by race, according to the district’s demographic data. Most strikingly, six of the 23 elementary schools in 4J serve over half the district’s Hispanic students, and language immersion schools are home to over 25 percent fewer black students per capita than other 4J elementary schools.
District officials hope to reduce these problems at Buena Vista by transitioning to a dual immersion system, bringing native English and Spanish speakers together to learn their non-native languages under the same roof. The plan will give admission priority to students who are FRL-eligible or who speak English as a second language. Bus transportation will also be expanded to the Glenwood neighborhood, an area with a large Hispanic population.
Still, Willard expects inequities to continue.
“[The transportation issue] has always been a smoke screen,” Willard says. “We cannot afford to provide this transportation anyway, and it’s not going to have that much of an impact.”
Willard says the real problem is that many low-income families lack the social status and the resources to exercise school choice. They see the flashy cars at schools like Charlemagne and Buena Vista, she says, and feel like their child would not fit into the “elitist” environment.
“A social empowerment imbalance is at the heart of the issue,” Willard says, “and that’s what the [district] staff and the board simply refuse to acknowledge.”
As the district works to continue its legacy of school choice and language immersion options, shrinking budgets and declining enrollments have forced officials to make difficult cuts. After a contentious public debate in 2010, district officials decided to shut down four neighborhood elementary schools, leaving alternative schools in tact.
“Everyone loves their own school,” Delf says. “[Parents] see what’s needed at their school and not what’s needed in the system as a whole, and as a district we do have to look at what is best for all of our students.”
Alternative schools have not been spared the fallout from hard economic times. At Buena Vista, Field has seen her class size grow from a manageable 25 to a full-capacity 33 in her nine years at the school. Meanwhile, the money crunch has reduced the amount of help she receives in the classroom, both from parent volunteers and paid assistants.
With no art teacher at the school, Field must integrate art projects like cross-stitching and drawing into her own class sessions. She also increasingly finds herself responsible for teaching her students behavioral skills that used to be imparted by parents.
“[My biggest challenge is] the economy, because parents are working [now],” Field says. “Students are no longer getting the education they need at home.”
Faced with these growing challenges, Field has developed some innovative teaching methods. She uses sign language instruction to help the students master Spanish grammar conventions, an approach she says has had tremendous success. And she emphasizes the study of foreign cultures, hoping to make her students more accepting of people who look, speak and live differently than they do.
However she can, Field tries to make school a special experience for the students who pass through the blue door into Room 6. The district does its best too. Delf hopes the new pilot program at Buena Vista will address concerns of inequity and improve the school’s diversity. Still, she understands the magnitude of the challenges facing the district in the current economic climate.
“You have to provide the opportunities you can with the resources you have,” Delf says. “It is really a challenge to keep providing the great quality of education that everyone wants to provide.”
SIDEBAR 1 : 4J Language Immersion Schools at a Glance
Eugene’s 4J district features four language immersion elementary schools, offering Spanish, French and Japanese to students from all across the city. As alternative schools, these programs admit students through a lottery held every spring.
While language immersion programs begin at the elementary school level, students have the choice to continue them through high school. Beginning in sixth grade, the programs become integrated within traditional middle schools, creating what the district describes as a “school within a school.”
The four language immersion elementary schools have their own buildings and their own identities. Here’s a closer look at the schools and what makes each one unique.
Buena Vista Spanish Immersion Elementary School
High School Region: Sheldon
School Colors: Green and Black
The Skinny: In 2010-11, Buena Vista began offering immersion at the kindergarten level, providing what principal Juan Cuadros calls the school’s “foundation.” Next year the school plans to begin a dual immersion pilot program that will bring native English and Spanish speakers together to learn their non-native languages under the same roof.
Charlemagne French Immersion Elementary School
High School Region: South Eugene
School Colors: Purple and lime green
The Skinny: Students learn both English and French at the school, with an increasing amount of French instruction in grades 3-5. After-school programs include a chess club, art club, garden club, and fiber arts club.
River Road/El Camino Del Río Elementary School
High School Region: North Eugene
School Colors: Blue and yellow
The Skinny: With a 41 percent Hispanic student body, River Road is among the district’s most diverse elementary schools. The school is currently transitioning to a dual immersion approach, which will feature equal instruction time in both Spanish and English. Roughly half the school’s staff is bilingual.
Yujin Gakuen Japanese Immersion Elementary School
High School Region: North Eugene
School Colors: None
The Skinny: The school became the first public Japanese immersion elementary school in the country when it joined the 4J system in 1988. Its program consists of instruction in both English and Japanese for all six grade levels.
SIDEBAR 2: Making Ends Meet
Families in Eugene’s 4J district don’t need to be told that 2011 was a tough year for schools. Facing a 2011-12 budget shortfall of $22 million, or 15 percent of the district’s operating budget, district officials were forced to make sweeping cuts that left no school unscathed.
The budget shortfall had its roots in several factors. With tax revenues drying up during the recession, state legislators used a ‘prisons or schools’ rationalization to lower its per-student funding of public education. Meanwhile, 4J’s declining enrollment compounded the problem, resulting in even fewer public dollars flowing into its coffers.
As revenues decreased, expenses continued to rise with the cost of salaries, benefits, utilities and materials. One-time federal stimulus money helped fill the gap temporarily, but ultimately it only delayed the painful cuts. After months of public input and debate, the school board announced its final cost-cutting measures in Feb. 2011.
To address the issue of declining enrollment, Coburg, Crest Drive, Parker and Meadowlark elementary schools were designated for closure after the 2010-11 school year. Employee compensation took a hit through a shortened school year and other unpaid furlough days. And the district saved over $8 million by laying off about 150 full-time employees, both from the classroom and the central administration.
Despite the extensive cuts, 4J is not out of the woods yet. The district is facing a $11 million shortfall for the 2012-13 school year, meaning more furlough days could be on the way.