Applicants far outstrip available spots at foreign language immersion programs across the county.
Fairfax County Public Schools awards the coveted spaces in its elementary school language immersion programs through a weighted lottery system that leaves parents such as Abbie Baker a bundle of nerves.
“I’m terrified,” Baker said. “I really want to get in.”
Registration for the online lottery for next school year started Jan. 2, and runs through Feb. 14 at 4:30 p.m.
Students in the immersion programs spend half of each day learning in English, and the other half learning in another language. Eleven elementary schools host immersion programs that accept applicants from across the county, regardless of their actual school boundary.
Last year, 55 percent of first-grade applicants got into one of the programs, or 604 students of the 1,107 who threw their hats into the ring, according to Gregory Jones, coordinator of the school system’s World Languages office.
The application process for incoming kindergarten students is even more competitive. Four of the 11 countywide immersion programs begin in kindergarten, and last year, just 20 percent of the 843 applicants were accepted, Jones said.
According to Beatrix Preusse-Burr, an elementary world languages specialist, the number of applicants fluctuates from year to year, but these percentages remain steady: About 50 percent of first-grade applicants and 20 percent of kindergarten applicants make it into a program each year.
Last year, of the overall kindergarten and first-grade applicants, 40 percent nabbed a spot.
In response to the high demand, in the last two years, the school system has added five immersion programs that pull students only from within their population. The number of less-intensive Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools (FLES) programs also has increased.
“We are expanding the availability of immersion programs and other foreign language options, and we hope this will help the lottery situation,” Jones said.
Still, competition continues to be fierce.
Parents can apply to as many programs as they wish. However, they need to consider not only language preferences — of the 11 countywide programs, seven are in Spanish, two in Japanese, and one each in French and German — but also transportation concerns. Busing is not provided to students outside a school’s normal boundaries.
Families also must contend with the tangle of the lottery. Each program has its own lottery, with different procedures and priority levels for filling their class rosters.
For example, the four programs starting in kindergarten aim for an even split of native English and Spanish speakers, a set-up the school system calls “two-way immersion.” The other seven programs reserve the first 10 percent of their slots for already-fluent speakers of the target language.
The next available seats are filled by the siblings of current students in the immersion programs.
After that, schools strike different balances of students from inside and outside their boundaries. Some aim for an equal number of in-district and out-of-district students. Others give priority to one of the groups.
That plays a major part in Baker’s lottery anxiety.
Her first choice for her kindergarten daughter is the Japanese program at Fox Mill Elementary, then the Japanese program at Great Falls Elementary.
However, both schools award places to applicants from within their school boundaries first. While the numbers fluctuate each year, that could leave just a handful of spaces for the rest of the applicants.
That includes Baker’s daughter, who attends a private school for kindergarten but lives in the Herndon Elementary area.
Great Falls Elementary Principal Ray Lonnett encouraged parents to stay positive on Tuesday night at one of 11 informational meetings held at schools with immersion programs. Still, he acknowledged that Great Falls was left with students on the wait list for its 28 first-grade seats last year.
There is movement on wait lists, which are maintained through the beginning of second grade, according to Preusse-Burr. But after that point, new students would be too far behind in language learning to enter the program.
Prospective parent Michelle Menza, who has a son in kindergarten at Great Falls Elementary, said she and her husband moved within the school’s boundaries to circumvent the stress.
“We moved here for this program,” Menza said. “Why worry about the boundaries? We came here because we didn’t want to risk it.”