Language immersion program to move as part of changes to NHC magnet schools is your source for free news and information in the Wilmington area.

The New Hanover County Board of Education voted Tuesday night to approve changes to the county’s magnet schools, but not without spirited discussion among the board members.

The proposal affects the county’s four magnet schools: Freeman School of Engineering; Gregory School of Science, Mathematics, and Technology; Snipes Academy of Arts and Design and Virgo Preparatory Academy, which is a middle school. According to the school district, both achievement and enrollment have been low at these schools (which get extra funding for their specialized programs) in recent years.

Among the changes, which are meant to address performance and enrollment issues as well as strengthen the existing programs, is a switch to a year-round calendar starting with the 2016-2017 school year for all magnets except Gregory.

It is a change at Gregory, however, that has sparked controversy among parents, educators and the board.

Maria Gonzalez, a teacher in Forest Hills Elementary School's Spanish immersion language program, reads aloud in her native language to her kindergarten class. The school is offering Mandarin Chinese immersion in the fall. Photo by Hilary Snow.
Maria Gonzalez, a teacher in Forest Hills Elementary School’s Spanish immersion language program, reads aloud in her native language to her kindergarten class. Photo by Hilary Snow.

The Spanish immersion program at Forest Hills Global Elementary School, which serves kindergarteners through fifth graders, will be moved beginning next school year to Gregory, which currently focuses on STEM programs. The reason behind this move, according to Superintendent Tim Markley, is to address overcrowding at Forest Hills, expand the program to last until 8th grade and open it up to students across the county (Gregory is an open enrollment school with no home district). The switch has prompted strong feelings from many parents and teachers on both sides, with those in opposition concerned about moving their children, the larger class sizes that could result from it and the phasing out of the STEM program, and those in favor seeing it as an answer to some of the issues Markley is concerned about.

While most board members agreed that the immersion program, which has a waiting list due to high demand from parents, needs to be expanded, some disagreed with the way the school system was going about it.

After an initial motion by board member Janice Cavenaugh to approve the proposal as presented, during discussion board member Lisa Estep made an amended motion to move forward with all the changes except the ones to the immersion program. Not enough time was given to study the move and its impacts, Estep said.

“We were presented with this on October 15. It is now the beginning of December…That’s all the time we’ve given parents and educators,” Estep said. “I think we owe it to the people at Forest Hills who started this program and the people at Williston who’ll have a program displaced to do this right.”

Board member Tammy Covil seconded the motion, saying she could see both sides but thought the issues could be addressed differently given more time.

“In order for them [the parents] to embrace this, it has to be done in a very careful manner,” said Covil, who added that she feared both the immersion program and the STEM programs currently in place could fail due to the board’s “knee-jerk” reaction.

Regardless of whether the board spent more time examining the proposal, “Fifty percent of the people will be happy and fifty percent of the people will be unhappy,” said Cavenaugh.

Markley, who sits with the board but does not get to vote, agreed.

“Delaying this doesn’t address [the issues],” he said.

Estep’s amended motion to approve the proposal without the changes to the immersion program was voted down 4-3, with board members Estep, Covil and Bruce Shell in favor of it and Cavenaugh, Chairman Donald Hayes, Vice Chair Jeannette Nichols and Edward Higgins against it.

Cavenaugh’s original motion to approve the proposal as written passed 4-3 by the same split.