No answers from Cobb Schools about changes to Dual Language Immersion program

Screenshot of Becky Sayler speaking at a Cobb Board of Education meetingBecky Sayler asked why she had to file an open records request to learn about DLI program changes.

By Rebecca Gaunt

A month after Superintendent Chris Ragsdale announced significant changes to the dual language immersion program, parents say they are frustrated with the lack of communication and equity.

At the April meeting, Ragsdale announced that the program would continue to accept entering kindergarteners at Nickajack, Smyrna, Russell, Mableton and Dowell Elementary Schools. Students already enrolled in the DLI programs at City View, Clarkdale, Fair Oaks, Hollydale, Norton Park and Riverside Elementary Schools will be allowed to complete the program.

“When data is present that indicates students are not attaining higher levels of academic success, or even worse, performing at lower levels than students not in the specific program, modifications must be made,” he said.

Ragsdale did not share the data referred to with the public, nor was it shared with board members. No questions from board members were allowed. 

School board post 2 candidate Becky Sayler, who has children enrolled in the program, filed an open records request hoping to learn more, but the results left her with more questions.

“It’s frustrating that I had to pay money and craft an official document to find out information that should be communicated consistently and clearly by the district,” she told the board and superintendent Thursday during public comment. “One of the items I asked for was ‘any and all data that resulted in the decision to discontinue the program.’  However, the only data I was given showed DLI students out-performing their peers in the early literacy framework over time. The records request also included many parents’ emails requesting that the program remain in our schools, and communication from principals, and even the head of the World Languages department, that made it clear they had no idea this change was coming.”

Sayler shared the ORR documents with the Courier, which reached out to district spokesperson Nan Kiel and Board Chair David Chastain to ask if there was any additional information or clarification they could provide. They did not respond.

Rumors of the changes broke out on social media prior to the announcement. At the April 21 school board meeting, several parents spoke about the positive impact the program had on their children. Some said they purchased their homes specifically for access to it.

Amanda Larkin asked the board to reinstate the program at Norton Park Elementary.

Amanda Larkin’s two children are enrolled in the DLI program at Norton Park which will no longer accept new kindergartners. She’s also an educator in a different district where she’s well-versed in dual language immersion.

“I noticed that he loved school. He loved going to Spanish and English,” Larkin said of her son who is finishing his fourth year. 

She described one of the program’s strengths as helping students develop non-verbal communication skills.

“It teaches students to look and try to follow the teacher because, in another language, you’re looking for the teacher to be doing motions, acting it out, looking for pictures, looking for examples. So at a very young age these children are taught to follow and track the teacher for the learning experience. In an elementary school, that is not a skill that students are coming to school with any longer because they are used to devices giving them all of the instruction,” she said.

According to Larkin, Norton Park’s DLI program has strong community support.

“Many of my son’s friends are native Spanish speakers, and I’ve had the opportunity to talk to their families and to see how excited they are that their children not only get the opportunity of being in an English school…but also learn their native language,” she said.

She continued, “A dual language immersion program is primarily for students who are learning English as a second language. The fact that my children, who learned English as their first language, get an opportunity, that is not lost upon me…I think that’s very lost on Cobb’s board. I don’t think they understand the purpose of dual immersion. I think they think dual immersion is for English speaking families to learn a second language and that’s not what the studies are there for.”

Lack of communication from the district has been a major source of frustration for her. Based on school board public comments, social media posts, and discussions the Courier has had with other DLI parents, she is not alone. The public assumption is that the schools not listed as accepting new students are phasing out the DLI program, but that has not been officially communicated.

Larkin said she pressed for information on what would happen to the teachers where the program was not accepting new students and was told they were given contracts, but may be placed in a non-DLI classroom. 

She addressed the board Thursday during public comment.

“If we were using data as Mr. Ragsdale stated, where is it? Where is the evidence of the school audit demonstrating that the dual immersion program was struggling?” she asked.

Middle school options for DLI are another source of contention. The county website states that Campbell Middle School and Floyd Middle School have DLI programs, but according to letters sent by the district to parents, the course offerings are not the same. 

Campbell will offer high school Spanish I, II, and III, and social studies in Spanish for the three years. The letter refers to the program as dual language immersion.

But the letter to Floyd parents refers to it as a World Language Pathway Program and only offers Spanish I, II, and III.

Ragsdale announced at the meeting that since “some parents were under the impression that Griffin Middle School would become a DLI school” there would be a chance to opt in to seats at Campbell and Floyd if interest dictates.

A third letter went out to some Nickajack Elementary parents with rising sixth graders that offered a virtual option through Cobb Virtual Academy for Spanish I, II, and III. 

“This is not what we were promised,” said one parent who asked not to use her name.

The district did not respond to a request for clarification on the middle school programs.

“I like to throw around the word equity and that fits right there,” Larkin said. “I need people who are voting for the board members to understand that we have people making decisions who are not informed and they are not informed enough to ask questions.

What will a high school level Spanish I course look like for students who have already spent six years learning the language? Another piece of information parents said they would like to know.

John Floresta, Cobb’s chief strategy and accountability officer, touted the district’s communication capabilities and awards during a work session presentation. Board members Dr. Jaha Howard and Charisse Davis pushed back.

“We do talk about making sure the data is coming from the district and not necessarily something that we’ve seen on social media…I would like to point out that sometimes that’s the only way that we do get any of that data and that DLI information is case in point. We had a mom, Ms. Sayler, request that information because we did not discuss it at the last meeting,” she said. “But then I, as a board member, am also getting that information in that same way.”

Floresta said, “I think that’s an opportunity for you, if you’re interested, or any board member is interested, to come talk to the appropriate staff member to get the appropriate information.”

Howard told Floresta, “Anytime there is communication that could be considered hard or controversial, it seems like we go into a kind of a reputation protection mode where the communication just seizes.”

Floresta responded, “I think the lanes for communication are open, but they are open on an individual basis.”

Nickajack parent Alica Bellezza-Watts spoke at the voting session in support of the program.

“I have learned more regarding DLI data from school board candidate Becky Sayler than I have from the district, despite the presentation on communication today,” she said. 

Recorded school board meetings can be viewed on the district website.

Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.