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Morris Area Elementary School adds Spanish to first grade curriculum

MORRIS - First graders at Morris Area Elementary will have Spanish as part of their curriculum this year. The Morris Area School Board voted Monday to expand their bilingual program into the first grade. The program has been part of the preschool and kindergarten classes and the Board heard a request to continue the program into the first grade at their July meeting.

At Monday's meeting, Superintendent Scott Monson said that he supports the idea of expanding the bilingual program, but was not recommending that the board implement it this year. Monson said the program is doable this year, but expressed concern over trying to continue it into second grade and beyond in the future. He noted that as he reviews the list of needs and wants in the district, there are higher needs.

Elementary principal Ken Gagner agreed with Monson's recommendation, saying "We just have to understand that it's a balance of priorities." He said that the teachers felt that by adding the Spanish language program there would be less time available for other curriculum such as math and social studies.

Board chair Kurt Gartland expressed concern over the financial aspect of the program, saying that other areas of the school have needs, including large class sizes for music and physical education.

Board member Lory Lemke disagreed, noting that the estimated cost of the program is $4,500, which he called very reasonable.

Lemke responded that he considers the first grade bilingual program to be a test or pilot program and implementing it does not commit the district to providing the program in all grades in the future. Lemke further noted that the board didn't have a proposal for other programs to consider, but it could act now to implement this program and get some benefit out of it for this year.

Board member Laura Carrington expressed support for having a bilingual program, particularly in the preschool classes as a way to help children from Spanish-speaking homes to feel more welcome. But she said that the $4,500 would fund additional staff for music or phy ed: "We have to do the most good for the most students."

Board member Brent Fuhrman said that if the board votes no on the program now, they won't see the proposal again, "But for right now, for $4,500, this extends the conversation."

Boardmembers questioned what the program involves.

Gagner replied that it would be two days a week and would focus on the Spanish language.

Monson said that the challenge in adding Spanish to the first grade is that this means the teacher's time is now full. High school Spanish teacher Jody Snow has been teaching the bilingual classes and by adding first grade to her teaching load, she will be out of hours. Monson said that to expand the program beyond first grade would mean buying time from another school district and he felt it would be difficult to find a one-sixth time Spanish teacher.

Lemke made a motion to implement the Spanish program into the first grade for the 2012-2013 school year and board member Jamie Solvie seconded the motion.The proposal was approved on a voice vote with Kurt Gartland giving the only dissenting vote. He stated that he was not ready financially to support this move.

The board also spent a considerable amount of time reviewing a draft consolidation plat, or plan, with the Cyrus School District. The Cyrus School Board has indicated that this will be the last year that they will operate an elementary school and have been seeking to consolidate with an adjoining district. At this point, Morris Area is the only district that they are working with.

Monson explained to the board that the plat was a starting point for discussion and that many decisions still need to be made by both boards.

The biggest areas of concern for the board were on combining the teaching staffs and the finances of the two districts.

Monson said that he felt Morris has always been a good neighbor to the Cyrus district, with lots of collaborative efforts. He said consolidation brings some new challenges to that relationship.

The board took no action on the plat, but plan to review it again in a work session on Sept. 4.