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Herndon Elementary School parents are divided about a proposal that would switch the school’s foreign language offering from French to Spanish beginning next fall.

The elementary school is one of two county public elementary schools offering a French Partial Immersion program. The other school is Kent Gardens Elementary in McLean.

If the switch to Spanish is made, students in the French program would continue their studies, while incoming kindergartners would enroll in the Spanish two-way immersion program. Under the partial immersion program, math, science and health classes are instructed in French. A two-way immersion program at Herndon would run throughout the day, with classes being taught half in English and half in Spanish. Additionally, student composition in classrooms would aim for 50 percent native-Spanish speakers and 50 percent native-English speakers.

The reason for the proposed switch, said Principal Ann Gwynn, is a growing Spanish demographic in her school, which now comprises about 43 percent of the students. The French program has also seen dwindling enrollments.

The student retention rate, meaning those students who stick with French, is about 54 percent at Herndon, compared to a 74 percent retention rate within Kent Gardens’ French program, according to the school system.

“[Enrollment] is a resource issue,” Gwynn said. “I look at resources and what I have available here. One of the issues is I’m having to support the French program. I’ve had to give up a day of P.E. and a half-time instructional assistant.

“The biggest drop off we see [in enrollment] is in the second grade, when the parents have the option of putting their children in advanced academics [courses such as math.]”

Students have the option of being taught advanced courses in English, which has lowered enrollments for the French-speaking math and science classes, she said. The division also means additional staffing is necessary to serve the two tracks of students.

“Some of our advanced math in French classes are down to 12 students,” Gwynn said.

While the change in language would not cause French students to switch to Spanish, pro-French parents worry the French program would be weakened.

“I’m so pro-keeping French, you wouldn’t believe it,” said parent Meredith Mani, who has two children, a fourth- and first-grader. “We want it to be one whole school [community]... and if you have French [taught to older kids] and Spanish and English, you create factions of kids.”

Mani and other parents said they felt the school administration sprung the proposed shift on them when they announced the change in late January. A community dialogue meeting is scheduled at 7 p.m. March 6 at Herndon Elementary.

Parents such as Judy Slepetz says if a proposal to switch the school’s foreign language from French to Spanish is approved, her children will be divided among the two foreign study curricula.

“My third- and first-grader[s] take French, and I have a pre-K student who would take Spanish,” Slepetz said. “I think [French] is going to give my kids an edge [when applying for jobs]. Everyone can speak Spanish.”

Demographic shifts within Herndon, she said, should not be the driver of switching foreign language offerings at Herndon Elementary.

“If demographics are the reason, why do we have Japanese [offered] at Fox Mill [Elementary in Herndon] or German [at Orange Hunt in Springfield]?”

Pro-Spanish parents said switching to a two-way immersion program for Spanish would increase the integration of language learning into the classroom while aiding communication with students who come from households where Spanish is the only language spoken.

“All languages are global languages, and Spanish is the fastest-growing language,” said parent Kimberly Wood, who has two sons currently attending Herndon Elementary, one still in the French program and one who opted out. Wood’s preschooler would take Spanish if the proposed change is made.

“I’m excited about it being two-way immersion because in partial [immersion] they are being spoken to [in French]. But in two-way, they are learning to read and write ...I think this [debate] needs to be brought down to the Herndon level. What’s best for Herndon? ... I believe it would benefit our community in Herndon to help these children communicate no matter what their ethnicity.”

Should Herndon Elementary switch from French to Spanish, it would be the first school to switch language offerings since the elementary language program began in Fairfax County in 1989. Of the 139 county elementary schools, 54 offer world language programs. Partial immersion program enrollment is decided by base-school attendance, meaning children already attending the school can opt-in, and a lottery system for those interested students outside of the attendance area. A two-way immersion program at Herndon would enroll Herndon Elementary students only, which could mean children from the same household living outside of Herndon would attend different elementary schools.

Fairfax County Public School officials said the goal, if Spanish is added, would be to begin another French Partial Immersion program at another elementary school.

There is no estimated increase in cost for switching from French to Spanish at Herndon, said Teddi Predaris, director of the school system’s Office of Language Acquisition and Title I.

“In fact, over time, as the program goes into place, there could be a cost reduction and that is because of their attrition [rate] in French,” she said. The School Board, which approved an advertised budget last week, has included $1 million for fiscal 2014 to add world language programs to 10 elementary schools. Two of these would be two-way immersion programs.

No school has been identified to become the new French Partial Immersion school. Decisions are typically made based on interest of the community and the number of students whose parents can speak French. Besides Kent Gardens, no other elementary school in the county has more than 15 students who speak French.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com