Education Lab

Sunset Elementary parents win fight to keep dual-language immersion program

Sunset Elementary parents are celebrating the Fresno Unified school board’s unexpected rejection of recommendations to allow English-only students to attend the bilingual school. But the district says Wednesday’s vote to keep Sunset as it is could hurt other elementary schools that are overcrowded.

Sunset Elementary is the only school in the district where 100 percent of students participate in a dual-language immersion program that aims to make all students fluent in both Spanish and English. Dual-immersion programs start teaching 90 percent of courses in a non-English language and 10 percent in English, eventually transitioning to a 50-50 ratio.

The school was a charter school until last year and does not currently have a designated attendance boundary like other public schools, allowing any students interested to attend. About a third of the students currently enrolled at Sunset live outside Fresno Unified attendance lines.

District officials proposed creating a boundary that would allow students living nearby to enroll in an attempt to alleviate overcrowding at other elementary schools. But parents voiced concerns that the change would jeopardize the school’s unique program because the curriculum would have had to offer some English-only curriculum.

The district contends that dual-immersion programs don’t need 100 percent participation to work in schools, pointing to programs at Ewing and Leavenworth elementary schools that offer the programs alongside regular instruction.

Parent Maria Gonzalez stood before the board Wednesday holding a sign that said, “We love Sunset just the way it is,” and cried tears of joy after the vote.

“Our dual immersion, the way it is now, is at 100 percent. Looking at our sister schools with dual-immersion, their numbers are 20 percent, 50 percent. If they brought in the other students, it was going to diminish,” she said. “I’m bilingual but I’m not bi-literate the way I want my children to be. We’re very happy  It makes me emotional.”

Trustee Cal Johnson received much applause at Wednesday’s board meeting, saying he worried the proposal would change the school environment by throwing off the English-to-Spanish ratio.

“We shouldn’t do anything that’s going to disrupt the culture there,” he said. “Sunset, we love you.”

School Board President Luis Chavez also voiced support, saying, “I love the concept of bilingualism being bilingual myself. I really like the model.”

In addition to Chavez and Johnson, trustees Christopher De La Cerda and Brooke Ashjian voted in favor of maintaining Sunset’s current setup. Trustees Carol Mills and Janet Ryan voted against it, and trustee Valerie Davis was absent.

But the Sunset debate may not be over.

“We are assessing the public’s feedback and the board’s actions to determine our potential options for future board consideration,” district spokesman Miguel Arias said Thursday.

The district is concerned that an attendance boundary for Sunset is necessary to offset overcrowding at nearby schools. With fewer than 300 students, Sunset’s enrollment is unusually small. Addams Elementary holds more than 800 students, and Columbia Elementary enrolls more than 600.

Students living next door to Sunset may have to ride a bus to a different school if they’re not interested in dual immersion, Fresno Unified Chief Operations Officer Karin Temple said. “We understand that students and families are connected to their schools and that change is difficult, and our work is sensitive to that,” she said.

Trustees also voted to delay action on recommendations to adjust attendance boundaries at Turner and Ewing elementary schools.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays