Milton could cap enrollment in popular French immersion program

French immersion in Milton’s elementary schools has grown so popular that enrollment could be capped next year, upsetting some parents who hope to send their future first-graders to the program.

The 25-year-old language program — one of only two French immersion programs in the state, along with one in Holliston — drew slightly more than half of Milton’s first-graders over the last four years, but this fall, two-thirds of the incoming class selected French.

Holliston uses a lottery system when demand exceeds capacity. Milton has no such limit.

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Residents said the problem is not only about capacity in French, but also about low enrollment in the standard English-language program. In French immersion, students learn all of their subjects in French for the first couple of years, and then gradually do part of their learning in English as their studies get more advanced. Students in the standard program study Spanish, but learn their other subjects in English.

Parent Kathryn Murphy said families have come to view French as a de facto honors program, and parents with high aspirations for their children are flocking to it.

Glenn Pavlicek, chairman of the Milton School Committee, said the perception that ambitious parents choose French spurs others to follow suit. “If people think that’s happening, it will happen,” he said.

Students in traditional programs are more likely than special-education students to enroll in French, he said, leaving fewer students to serve as role models in English-language classes that combine special and regular education.

Other demographic differences exist between the programs. On July 25, Laura O’Dwyer, a Milton resident and associate professor of educational research at Boston College, presented an analysis of Milton’s elementary programs to the School Committee. She determined that students learning in English are more likely to be low-income, minorities, and special education students. Until 2009, they were also more likely to be boys.

She said children in the French program score higher on state achievement tests than children in the English program. Between the 2005-2006 and 2010-2011 school years, the gap between the number of students in each program scoring “proficient” or “advanced” on the Grade 5 English test ranged from 11.7 to 28.4 percent, with students in French always coming out on top. French-program students also scored higher in math.

Yet the gap decreased substantially when O’Dwyer matched students on demographic factors — gender, income, minority status, and special education status. In some of the years studied, the gap in scores became statistically insignificant.

Barbara Abrams, an associate professor of French at Suffolk University and director of its immersion program in France, said immersion works best at any age, and studies show that from ages 5 to 11, children’s brains can acquire language more easily.

Learning a language without immersion, she said, is like going to the gym infrequently — you may work hard and get sore, but you won’t get stronger unless you go more often.

Murphy, who speaks French and moved from Boston to Milton so her children could attend the program, opposed the cap on the French-immersion program before she listened to O’Dwyer, but has since softened her position. She said she will be disappointed if her children don’t get into the French program, but she understands why a cap might be necessary.

“I have a friend whose daughter is in English, and as of August, she did not know what school her daughter was going to be in,” Murphy said, because the district was considering combining small classes.

The School Committee voted during the summer not to allow new students moving into Milton to enroll in French immersion this fall. In the next month or so, Pavlicek said, the committee should come up with a plan for the fall of 2013. 

In the meantime, the district is trying to improve the English-language classes this year by introducing a pilot program in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, he said.

Parent Peter Culhane said any nonimmersion program is outdated. The school system should make immersion mandatory, with exceptions for some special-education students, he said.

Superintendent of Schools Mary Gormley rejected the idea of making the French program mandatory.

“We provide an education for all children, and the parents and guardians of all students do not want French immersion,” she said.

Christine Howley is one of those parents. She chose the English program for her three daughters.

“We wanted our kids to have a strong experience learning the English language,” she said.

She also didn’t want to put them through the stress of having all their subjects taught in a new language. Some children in French cry and ask to switch, she said.

She lamented the divisiveness of the issue, saying Milton has become “an angry town.”

Gormley recommended the School Committee adopt a cap on the French program. If the imbalance continues, children in English will mix with only a small group of peers, rather than meeting new people each year, she said.

She said administrators will create capping plans for the School Committee to consider. She plans to propose a timeline for action Sept. 19.