Rock Hill school board to vote on Sullivan language immersion academy

Third-grade student Dayton Cunningham takes a test in his French language immersion class at Rosewood Elementary School in Rock Hill earlier this year.
Third-grade student Dayton Cunningham takes a test in his French language immersion class at Rosewood Elementary School in Rock Hill earlier this year. Special to The Herald

The Rock Hill school board is expected to vote Monday on building a kindergarten to fifth-grade language immersion academy at Sullivan Middle School.

Superintendent Kelly Pew’s $24 million project is one of a series of sweeping changes in the school choice program. Choice programs allow students to choose a school based on its curriculum or teaching method.

Pew’s proposal calls for a new $18 million kindergarten- to third-grade language immersion building at Sullivan. She also is recommending $400,000 for changes to a Sullivan wing for fourth-and fifth-grade immersion, and $5.6 million for updates at Sullivan.

Pew’s proposal also calls for immersion middle school students who would be moving into sixth grade in the fall of 2018 to be based at Sullivan.

The project would house up to 900 immersion students in kindergarten to fifth grade and 900 in grades six to eight. It is expected to be complete in the fall of 2018.

Pew has recommended consolidating the Spanish immersion programs at Ebinport and Richmond Drive elementary schools and the French program at Rosewood Elementary.

Some board members questioned the impact on racial diversity and poverty levels at the three elementary schools if immersion moves out.

“I have great concerns about the effect of choice schools on other schools,” said board member Jane Sharp. She added: “It drains the middle-class parents.”

The immersion programs have a smaller percentage of students on free- and reduced-price lunch and less racial diversity than traditional classes at the same schools, according to data Pew provided to the board.

Ebinport’s language immersion program has 29.5 percent of its students on free- and reduced-price lunches, compared with 67 percent in traditional classrooms.

The same statistic is 35.5 percent and 67 percent, respectively, at Richmond Drive, and at Rosewood it is 52 percent and 75.6 percent.

Data show immersion programs have a larger population of white children and smaller groups of black and Hispanic children than do traditional classrooms.

But Sharp likes the program. “I like the opportunities it offers our district. I like the kind of exciting things we are talking about,” she said.

Board chairman Jim Vining said his greatest concern is the proposal doesn’t expand the programs’ student capacity. The current capacity is 50 students in each of three schools for each of six grade levels, he said, or 900 students.

Pew said the change would open the program to students across the district, because spaces don’t have to be reserved for students who are zoned for each school.

Vining said the initial vision for choice programs called for placing them in schools with higher poverty levels to boost enrollment.

“The choice program has clearly helped schools where we have put them,” he said. “It has clearly not helped schools that don’t have choice programs.”

Pew said the district’s plans to offer bus transportation for choice programs should make them accessible to a broad group of students.

“We hope we can provide more diversity for those specific choice programs,” she said. “There has been some difficulty in the past because if a child could not provide transportation, they could not go.”

Jennifer Becknell: 803-329-4077