WALLA WALLA - Seven years ago, a group of Sharpstein Elementary kindergarten students embarked on a new phase of bilingual education in Walla Walla Public Schools.
The children represented the district's first dual-language program. About 50 children, half who mainly spoke English at home, half who mainly spoke Spanish, committed to learning core subjects in both English and Spanish throughout elementary school.
For the next six years, they continued to grow their English and Spanish comprehension.
Now those students are sixth-graders, and the School District has been faced with the question of how to address the students' Spanish language needs at the middle school level.
By chance, the district was able to offer Spanish as part of a reading and language arts block at Garrison Middle School to about 40 students who have continued with the program.
But a few weeks ago, families in the dual-language program were informed that the district would be unable to offer dual-language instruction for seventh and eighth grades.
On Thursday, the district organized a meeting geared primarily to families of current dual-language sixth-graders as a chance to explain the history of the program, clarify the complications of offering such a program in middle school and to brainstorm alternatives.
The meeting was facilitated by Assistant Superintendent Linda Boggs, who took responsibility for not informing the families on the middle school interruption sooner, and by doing so in a letter rather than in person at a meeting.
About 40 people attended the meeting, although a majority of those were school principals and teachers. Of the parents in attendance, the majority were from English-speaking homes.
Boggs explained the district has committed the last several years to making the dual-language program at Sharpstein work. And its success and popularity is apparent. The dual-language model was offered for the first time at Edison Elementary this year, and a similar program will be offered at Blue Ridge Elementary next year.
But whether it's possible to continue offering Spanish instruction at the middle school level is still unclear. Boggs stressed that the model has always been designed for kindergarten through fifth grades.
"We really knew that K-5 was the program," Boggs said. "And we could try to do something at middle school, but there were no promises."
She also reminded the staff and families that the program is tailored to benefit the children who are learning English, because English is their foreign language. Offering the Spanish element to English-speaking families becomes an added benefit.
"The program is for the second-language learners," she said.
The district has committed to giving future sixth-grade students continued Spanish instruction. Doing so this year was made possible through a shift in staffing and funding.
While the meeting was focused primarily on drawing options for the coming year, at least two parents expressed concern about a lack of vision for future students, particularly those at Edison and Blue Ridge who will significantly increase the number of children in the district learning Spanish as well as English.
Boggs reminded the participants that the purpose of the meeting was not to problem-solve six or seven years out, but to address the needs of the original dual-language students as they enter the seventh-grade.
"Whatever we do now is only about next year and these students," Boggs said. She did say that plans were in the works to come up with creative and adequate Spanish offerings at Walla Walla High School to meet the needs of the dual-language students.
One parent asked how other middle schools in the state or country have made programs work. The Sharpstein program was modeled from other schools, and examples of middle school programs had been part of the initial explorations. Some parents also spoke out about being assured early on that a middle school component would be included.
And the answer, from principals and Boggs, was that getting new funding, securing qualified teachers, and doing so while meeting basic education requirements made it exceedingly difficult to offer Spanish. Even as an elective, some children would have to choose between taking Spanish and algebra, or band, or participating in the school's gifted education program, Explorers.
Complicating the matter is budget cuts at the state level, and federal guidelines that make it more difficult to find qualified teachers to instruct in Spanish at the middle school level. The teachers union also sets requirements for hours worked that add another wrinkle to the problem.
Chuck Reininger, whose son is a sixth-grader at Garrison, said he saw the state and federal requirements as part of the problem. For him, it emphasized the need for districts to have more local control of their schools.
Near the end of the 2 1/2-hour meeting, parents and staff were asked to come up with solutions for the upcoming year. And although suggestions will be explored, some of the more popular and doable ideas were online learning, a before or after-school "dual-language" club or elective, or introducing Spanish literature to the regular seventh-grade reading and language-arts courses.
Bilingual Program Director Diana Erickson assured the families that even if middle school brought a pause in Spanish instruction, their children had already gained valuable foreign-language education that would not suddenly disappear.
Erik Gryler, whose two children are in fifth and third grade at Sharpstein, said he was discouraged by the fate of the middle school program.
"It's depressing to hear all the realities," he said. At the same time, he had only positive things to say about his children's instruction so far at Sharpstein.
"It's a great program," he said.