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With the state facing a huge budget shortfall, over 14 million dollars had to be cut from Richmond Public Schools Budget for the 2010 to 2011 school year. Superintendent Yvonne Brandon proposed to eliminate 203,000 dollars from the Spanish Immersion Program at Fox and Southampton Elementary schools. The cut was part of 763,075 dollars worth of cuts to programs but Spanish Immersion was the only program completely eliminated. Parents of these students responded, showing up to school board meetings in droves and meeting with their representative Kimberly Gray.
The Spanish Immersion program is in its second year as a pilot at Fox and Southampton. 164 kindergarten and first grade students in this program learn science and math in Spanish. And there are indications that the program is working. Students are earning higher test scores and parents say they are learning to think creatively and preparing for a global economy.
Gabriel Rich who is a parent of a Spanish Immersion student and a professor at VCU said, “How do you prepare our young to be leaders for a future that we can’t imagine? Well we need young people who can think, and that means being able to solve problems, to work with others, others who may be very different.”
Lorraine Fisher spear headed the Save Spanish Immersion movement, writing letters and sending out a petition. Fisher and other parents pleaded with the school board to allocate some funds to the program and they held work sessions of their own to find wasteful funds. They proposed reducing administrative positions instead of teachers, making some school texts optional and improving the efficiency of the bus system. Fisher said:
“It was just a two year pilot and we’re just starting to see the success of it. And to take it away would actually be a waste of money we’ve put into it to get it going.”
Some parents in Richmond Public Schools argue that the program isn’t equitable. Parent Jordan Rogers said:
“It’s been my experience that the current Spanish Immersion as it is does not benefit everyone. And in that it is unjust. I will not stand here and tell you it’s not a fantastic program. I fully support language and development language in the school system. And I think certainly there is a place for it and I commend your support of it. However, as it stands it is divisive.”
But Fisher says it could eventually serve more students if it isn’t eliminated and is an asset to the school system which relies on attendance for funding:
“If we can make it through this crisis and continue the program, the goal is to eventually roll it out to more students. The program has already shown that it is pulling students and parents out of private schools and keeping them in the city program who otherwise would choose not to.”
In her final plea to the school board before their vote February 16th she said:
“If you are merely going to sign off on the superintendent’s budget without recommending other cuts that you questioned or that were discusses in the work sessions, why did we waste our time? I want to believe that you truly want to put the children first, but what I have seen and heard to this point has discouraged me. And I feel outraged.”
But School Board Chairwoman Kimberly Bridges said the reality is,
“We could entirely stop running buses and transport no students and turn off all the lights and have no heat or air conditioning in these buildings and we would not meet the cuts we are currently looking at. Knowing full well and everyone who has talked to anyone in this region, local, state, governor’s office or otherwise who thinks we’re only going to get this one cut, I would love to talk to you about that.”
The School Board voted to pass the superintendents budget 7-2. Kimberly Gray who represents Fox was one of the two who didn’t vote for the proposed budget.
The parents of Fox and Southampton say they are going to continue to fight to fund the program. They are working to make the program cost neutral and to secure private funding. Fisher has been active in rallying with the school board, parents and teachers against further cuts to Richmond schools but the Spanish Immersion program remains her priority.
If the program ends despite her and other parents efforts she said it could be detrimental to students,
“They have been learning in a different manner and in my opinion challenged and engaged above a normal classroom situation. I personally worry that some of these children would not be as enticed to be interactive.”
But Fisher said the bigger impact would be on RPS.