Tooele County School District weighs dropping one-of-a-kind German language immersion program elementary school as enrollment shrinks. (2023)

Tooele County School District weighs dropping one-of-a-kind German language immersion program elementary school as enrollment shrinks. (1)

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  • Lopsided enrollment in Tooele’s West Elementary School’s German dual language immersion program has created budgetary headaches that could shut the program down.

sie Deutsch? Even the brightest children in Utah—understandably—wouldn't be able to answer that question. And while dual language immersion programs have become common in Utah elementary schools, teaching young children to be near-fluent in languages from Spanish to Chinese, there are only two such programs in the entire state that are taught in German.

Before too much longer, there may only be one.

West Elementary School in Tooele may not seem like a diamond in the rough at first—or even second—glance. The air conditioning and heating systems are on their last legs. There's no fence around the playground. A parent begged school board members to fix the plumbing at a recent meeting after lead from the school's pipes made it into the children's water.

West hosts the only German Dual Language Immersion program offered at a traditional public school in Utah (Summit Academy, a charter school in Bluffdale, is the state's other German immersion program). West Elementary's immersion program positions faculty and administrators to provide an unmatched opportunity to the school's lower-income students, said Glen Turnbow, a parent of two students at West Elementary.

"I'm working hard so my kids keep their program, but also so that kids here have more of an opportunity, financially, to improve learning German," Turnbow said.

Turnbow learned Spanish while serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Argentina. While he found plenty of opportunities to speak Spanish at his jobs, he noted he never got paid more because he could speak Spanish.

While searching on hiring databases like Indeed and Glassdoor, however, Turnbow discovered a swath of high-paying jobs for German speakers in Utah. He teamed up with other parents in an attempt to save the program after the Tooele County School Board expressed concern about the long-term viability of DLI at West Elementary.

"Kids here, they could really use that economic boost," Turnbow said. Many German colleges also offer free tuition for students, Turnbow noted, if they can speak the language.

Der Anfang (The Beginning)
How did an elementary in Tooele land in this idiosyncratic position? Built in 1959, West Elementary is one of the oldest buildings in Tooele County School District. The district embraced dual-language immersion at its elementary schools in the early 2010s, launching programs in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian and—in 2014 at West—German.

German immersion classes bumped enrollment in the first couple of years. Before the program started, there were 48 first graders at West Elementary. But in the program's first year, first-grade enrollment jumped to 72, with 54 participating in German dual-language immersion.

As the years wore on, the lopsided class sizes between the German immersion classes and the traditional English language classes only grew, creating budgetary headaches that undermine the program's enrollment success.

(Before we go any further, let's pause to understand what the phrase "FTE" means. FTE stands for "full-time equivalent" and is a formulaic representation for how much funding a school district has available to allocate toward paying staff and personnel. The work of two part-time teachers can add up to one FTE. Districts have ideal funding ratios for how many students should correspond to an FTE, which could be one teacher or could represent a combination of staff resources.)

Tooele's personnel standards call for 25 students per FTE at the elementary level, district spokesman Brett Valdez said, though that ratio is a guideline as specific staffing ratios vary from school to school. The growing class-size disparities at West threw the district's overall FTE standards out of whack.

Teachers in West Elementary's traditional programs were giving lessons to groups of maybe 11 students, while those at other schools in the district—bursting at the seams with their own enrollment growth—faced overcrowded classrooms.

"The FTE ratio at West [Elementary] is much lower and it makes education much more expensive," Valdez said. "The parents there enjoy that, but it's harder to justify when you have other schools that don't have the same ratio."

In response, the district school board decided to reassign the traditional teachers at West Elementary to other schools in the district, designating West as a "magnet school" in 2019. They dropped the English-language classes and, from then on, only taught German immersion courses beginning at first grade, with traditional kindergarten programs.

But this created new problems, including dwindling enrollment at West Elementary that pushed the board to weigh reversing its decision.

Die Zukunft (The Future)
Tooele school board members are plotting how to fit more kids at West to relieve enrollment pressure at other elementary schools packed to the gills.

Enrollment continued to shrink after the magnet school designation. As of the 2022-23 school year, there were only 193 students enrolled at the school, including kindergartners. Meanwhile, the next smallest elementary school in Tooele, Northlake Elementary, ballooned to a population of 567.

In particular, Settlement Canyon Elementary is quickly approaching its building capacity and administrators theorize that turning West Elementary back into a traditional neighborhood school would ease the burden there and at other surrounding schools.

There are a number of options for the program's future that the school board is considering. The list is too long to include here, but of the seven presented at an April board meeting, three recommended phasing out the German immersion program completely. The district has committed to providing German instruction through sixth grade to all current students, and those who will enter first grade this fall.

There is also the issue of repairing the dilapidated school campus. The district is studying the potential for asking voters to approve a bond to rebuild the school, but that likely wouldn't happen for at least a few years.

At a board meeting in April, administrators laid out a timeline in which they would most likely ask for a bond in 2026 to avoid raising property taxes and break ground in the spring of 2027. It would take about two years to rebuild, so a new school will start taking students in 2029.

German is not the only language program potentially on the chopping block. All of Tooele's dual-immersion programs are being evaluated as the district looks to align itself with its ideal FTE-to-student ratios.

Die Kinder (The Children)
No matter what the board decides, it's clear that West Elementary desperately needs upgrades. Under Utah's open enrollment laws, parents can opt to take their kids to any school in, or even outside, their home district. If the German program is phased out and the school returns to a traditional model, the need for updates will only grow.

"If I were to move in, and I saw a nice school, or a crummy, old school, I'd want my kids at the nice school," Turnbow said. "They have all the nice, new stuff. Why wouldn't you want your kid to go there?"

At a meeting on May 9, operations director Ian Silva told board members the district has only made $128,500 worth of improvements at West Elementary since 2016—buying blinds for windows and an ice machine for the faculty room. The board approved $250,000 worth of repairs, including plumbing fixes to remove lead in the water, as part of its capital outlay for next year.

The German Dual-language Immersion program hasn't been set up for success, in Turnbow's estimation. Students cannot be easily admitted to the school after second grade since West doesn't offer traditional classes. He argued that if a family with an older child and another in kindergarten moves in close to West, they'll likely choose another school that can accommodate both of their children at once.

Turnbow and other parents are concerned the district will repeat the same mistakes that led to the school being reclassified in 2019. Filling the school up with traditional classes will put further stress on the facilities, he argues, and parents have worked tirelessly with school staff to recruit more students, posting yard signs, sending letters to parents at nearby schools and creating promotional videos.

And young families are coming. Since Turnbow moved into his house two years ago, eight more families have arrived on the street. Many have elementary-aged kids but can't enroll in the German program at West because they're too old and don't have the option of English-only courses there.

Turnbow thinks people are sleeping on the potential that learning German at such a young age could have for students. The students who were the first to enroll in the program in 2014 are reaching high school age now, and Turnbow has heard they're still mastering German on foreign exchange trips and more.

"I've heard of some families that have gone to Germany, and their kids are just talking away," Turnbow said. "They're doing all the translating, negotiating pay and finding out what to do because they can speak it."

Valdez encouraged parents to keep an eye on upcoming agendas for further board discussions on the future of the dual language immersions programs in Tooele. He added that the board has placed a priority on being transparent and "wants to have those discussions publicly."

For now, West Elementary will continue its current programming in the 2023-24 school year. However, the district is taking a closer look at its DLI programs and plans to revisit the issue in August, if not sooner.

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