Commentary

Georg Vanberg: Mandarin expansion not worth the costs

December 6, 2013 

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Georg Vanberg

LES TODD — Duke Photography

Capacity concerns at Glenwood Elementary School, which is currently over-enrolled by roughly 90 students, are presenting the school board and the school system with a difficult choice.

Over the next few weeks, a decision will be made on how to address this imbalance, which is largely driven by the expansion of the Mandarin dual language program currently housed at Glenwood.

I am writing to express my concerns regarding one particular option being discussed, namely the creation of a magnet school for the dual language programs at one of the existing elementary schools. If chosen, this option will require a massive renewed re-districting of neighborhoods for a second consecutive year. A rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that as many as 1,000 students – just under 20 percent of all elementary school students in the district – would need to be moved to a new school (counting students who must be moved from the chosen elementary school, and those students in the DL programs).

A radical fix

Such a move would constitute a radical and dramatic “fix” with little guarantee of success.

Estimating how families respond to redistricting decisions is obviously difficult – witness the fact that the plan that was implemented only a few months ago apparently failed to anticipate the situation at Glenwood. A second, massive re-shuffling of students will be disruptive to children and families, many of whom have just been redistricted, and some of whom are among the most vulnerable populations in our district.

Moreover, given the apparent difficulties in anticipating shifts in student populations, this approach may well create new imbalances next year.

A more measured approach would look for opportunities to re-balance the schools on a scale that has a smaller impact, leaving time to see whether the current imbalances are a permanent feature that persists, or a temporary aberration.

Chance to reconsider

Given that the over-enrollment at Glenwood has largely been created by the expansion of the Mandarin DL program, perhaps this is also an opportunity to reconsider the decision to expand this program – a program that serves less than 3 percent of elementary school students in our district. A dual language program in Mandarin is, without a doubt, a wonderful addition to the educational opportunities offered by our schools. It is also a tremendously expensive one.

As already outlined, the program may result in massive re-districting. Moreover, although estimating the precise financial impact is difficult, and some disagreement over costs exists, the program likely also has significant budgetary implications.

The reports on the Mandarin DL program delivered to the school board in March and May of last year indicated that a majority of the district’s HR resources are consumed by recruiting qualified teachers for the Mandarin program and navigating the immigration process. These reports estimated the additional costs of running the program at more than $155,000 per year.

Put in perspective, this money could buy roughly 5,000 hours of tutoring, or be used to hire three additional teachers or six teacher’s assistants. In light of the district’s core mission – including the need to address the significant achievement gap that persists in our schools as revealed by recent test scores – it may be worth asking whether these resources are not better used in a different manner.

Substantial costs

Let me close by re-iterating that my point is not to deny the benefits of a Mandarin DL program for the few who are enrolled in it. The point is simply that this program imposes substantial financial and logistic costs on the district.

The decision to expand the program was made in an environment in which these costs were perhaps not fully understood, particularly with respect to the need to re-balance schools. At least to me, it seems disproportional to commit such resources in the current budgetary situation, and to engage in another re-districting effort that may well move close to 20 percent of the elementary school students in the district, for the sake of a program that serves fewer than 3 percent of students.

I hope that the benefits accruing to a small portion of our community will not be used to justify the imposition of additional sacrifices on a much larger number of children.

Georg Vanberg lives in Chapel Hill.

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