The West Windsor-Plainsboro School Board is expected to vote at its meeting tonight (Sept. 12) on whether to implement a pilot dual language immersion program for elementary school students in the district.

The board’s vote comes after a presentation at the Aug. 22 meeting by Martin Smith, assistant superintendent for curriculum, about the proposed program, under which children would be taught classes with two languages from kindergarten to 5th grade. If approved, the program could be implemented as soon as September 2018.

Under the program, students would be taught in English and a second language—Chinese or Spanish, in this case. The program would be aligned to the New Jersey Academic Standards in English/language arts, mathematics and all other content areas, Smith said.

He explained ways in which the program supports the district’s mission, competencies and strategic goals. “Immersion students are better prepared to collaborate and communicate across linguistic and political boundaries to solve problems as a result of the demands of their learning environments, and they evidence more positive attitudes toward other peoples and other cultures,” Smith said.

The goals of the program, Smith said, include meeting or exceeding academic achievement levels in all content areas of the district curriculum; acquiring a high level of communicative and academic proficiency in both English and the target language; gaining an appreciation of other cultures and a deeper understanding of their own culture; increasing capacity for creative thinking and problem solving; and ensuring students are integrated into the fabric of the school.

To be enrolled in the program, parents would need to request participation when they are registering their kids for school. Parents from all four elementary schools can apply to enter the program.

Those in the program when it starts would begin in kindergarten with full immersion in a target language. After-school activities and special events would be in English.

From first to fifth grade, half of the students’ classes would be instructed in English (social studies, specials and English language arts) and the other half would be in the target language (math, science, target language arts). Each day, the students would switch the morning and afternoon sections of their schedule in what Smith called a “rollercoaster model” of scheduling.

Smith said he hopes to begin the program with approximately 46 to 50 kindergarten students for each language, allowing for two sets of classes with between 23 and 25 students. If there is a lower amount of interest, the program may be resized, and if there is a greater interest, a lottery system would be set in place.

He also said that the district hopes to limit the number of heritage speakers to about 50 percent of the program, so that students without previous exposure to the language would not feel behind.

Students can choose to opt out of the program, but to enter the program after kindergarten, they must showcase an understanding of the foundations of the secondary language, based on what grade they hope to enter the program.

According to Smith, there are a number of benefits for students who participate in the program. He said that multilingual proficiency leads to enhanced global citizenship, better cognitive skills and improved academic performance.

He added that according to a study published in the journal Population Health, multilingual proficiency is even linked to a decreased chance of Alzheimer’s disease.

Smith said that academically, students who have participated in a bilingual program may start a bit behind, but quickly catch up and exceed expectations. In fact, across the country, students in similar programs were able to take the respective language advanced placement exam in 9th grade, and then engage in three years of college-level language learning.

However, there are some clear costs to incorporating this program. The location of the program has not been chosen, but regardless, students would have to be bused to a magnet location that may not be their designated school, thus increasing transportation costs.

This is not unprecedented; the same is done for High School North students who participate in the High School South English as Second Language program, and the idea of having different school buses pick up students based on proximity has been floated. Even so, the increased transportation costs for the district could range anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000, Smith said.

Additional costs would also initially be incurred due to the need for developing a new curriculum and target language libraries, along with staff training. Smith said that there is no plan or need to hire new staff, but that may be changed based on the size of the program.

After listing the benefits and costs, Smith said that potential challenges could range from staff development to community outreach. He noted the importance of having the support of district parents and the need to publicize all aspects of the program so that these parents could make an informed decision.

For comparison, the Princeton Public Schools launched a dual language immersion program in 2015 after several years of preparation at Community Park School for students in Kindergarten and first grade, according to that school district’s website.

In the program’s second year, it expanded to second grade and continued to roll out to grades 3 to 5 in subsequent years. The Princeton program uses the 50/50 model in which students receive one half of their core instructional time in a Spanish and the other half in English.

During the public comments section of the Aug 22 meeting, Arnav Sood of Sparrow Drive, West Windsor, mentioned his qualms with the program and the way the school board introduced it.

He first mentioned the possible issue with the quality of the program, which “should be for people who can perform at a certain level… We shouldn’t tamper with the quality of the program simply to increase participation.”

Sood then criticized the way the school district revealed the program. “I do think the transparency issue on the board right now is objectively abysmal. This meeting is the first time members of the public have heard the details of the dual immersion program,” he said.