On June 14, Missoula County’s public school board voted unanimously to scale back an ambitious nine-year-old dual-language immersion (DLI) program at Paxson Elementary. Many of the school’s teachers breathed a collective sigh of relief, having spent the early part of 2022 discussing the need for change. But for a swath of Paxson parents, the decision deepened a sense of loss and broken trust that had been stirring for nearly two months.

The hour of public comment that preceded the vote laid bare just how intense the debate at Paxson had become. Parents spoke in urgent tones about the value of Missoula having a public elementary school where children learn math, social studies and science in a non-English language — in Paxson’s case, Spanish. Teachers countered that the program has stumbled over multiple challenges since its inception, and that a new, less immersive model would resolve staff concerns while continuing to promote Spanish instruction for K-5 students. 

The comments offered board members a stripped-down version of a public panel held at Paxson several weeks earlier, when Principal Julie Robitaille and Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson tried to explain the situation and answer questions from about 60 attendees. Tensions had already come to a head by that point, with teachers posting their frustrations with parental backlash to social media and parents soliciting support to block any change to the program. The panel stretched for more than two hours as each side made its case, but the tension persisted. In the following days more than 140 parents signed a grievance alleging to the board that Watson’s process violated district policy and the rights of parents and students.

“Not only is the program popular with parents and students, it works. I feel like this is a true accomplishment of public education.”

Paxson Elementary parent Greg Leary

Debate about the fate of DLI at Paxson clearly touched a nerve in a community that prides itself on a neighborly and forward-looking identity. The century-old school sits at the edge of Missoula’s tree-lined University District, a stone’s throw from the Bonner Park Bandshell, a popular walk-up Dairy Queen and dozens of quaint bungalows and stately Tudor-style homes that give the area its historic character. Paxson continues to hold firm to its “neighborhood school” status, catering primarily to students from the nearby area per district policy, even as its increasingly Spanish-centric focus has drawn transfer students from elsewhere in Missoula and inspired a new brand of pride among teachers and parents alike.

“Not only is the program popular with parents and students, it works,” Paxson parent Greg Leary told school board members ahead of last week’s vote. “I feel like this is a true accomplishment of public education.”

Paxson parent Greg Leary sits before the Missoula County Public Schools trustees June 14 to oppose a proposed change to the school’s DLI program. “Not only is the program popular with parents and students, it works,” Leary told the board. “I feel like this is a true accomplishment of public education.” Credit: Alex Sakariassen/MTFP

With heated debates about COVID-19 protocols and educational equity currently raging across the public education landscape, what led Paxson to this specific conflict at this particular moment? The answer lies in an earlier era of change in Missoula, when a single neighborhood school in the quiet heart of a mountain town was tasked with charting an educational frontier the district, and the state, had yet to explore.

ORIGINS

By January 2013, then-MCPS Superintendent Alex Apostle had already generated sizable waves in the Missoula community. He’d spent the first four years of his tenure reshaping district leadership, creating new administrative positions and installing new principals at 15 of Missoula’s 17 public schools at the time. He also introduced a bold new strategic plan — his “21st Century Schools” initiative — aimed at boosting graduation rates, introducing new technology to classrooms and seeding area schools with new instructional programs backed by more than $2 million in private donations and grants from prominent organizations including the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation.

“He demonstrates progress, enthusiasm, forward thinking and integrity,” then-MCPS trustee Mike Smith wrote in a January 2013 board evaluation of Apostle’s performance. “Dr. Apostle is the single most important investment in the future [of] this district.”

That January marked the introduction of Apostle’s latest 21st Century Schools plan: a language immersion program for elementary students. According to minutes from MCPS meetings that winter and spring, Apostle characterized the proposal as a “district prerogative” and forwarded it to the board for consideration and approval. Trustees were largely enthusiastic, touting the benefits of immersion in building language proficiency and emphasizing the need for public schools to embrace cutting-edge instructional models to remain competitive with the appeal of private charter schools. Meanwhile, with teachers and taxpayers reeling from the news that the board had awarded Apostle a $20,000 raise despite recent district-wide budget cuts, public comment on the DLI proposal was scant.

What comment was entered into the record indicates that excitement about the program wasn’t universal. Throughout February and March, scattered voices at board meetings expressed concerns that teachers at Paxson — identified as the prime candidate school to launch DLI — had been cut out of the decision-making process, and that the initiative and others like it would prove financially unsustainable if and when the private foundation dollars supporting them dried up. Heather Davis Schmidt, who spearheaded the DLI effort as one of the district’s three executive regional directors at the time, told Montana Free Press this month that administrators at the time had considerable interest in the program’s potential for “leveling the playing field” for disadvantaged students in Missoula, an interest bolstered by promising research from elsewhere in the country.

“But at the same time, I would say when we first started the programing, there was a lot of apprehension from parents,” said Schmidt, now the superintendent of Missoula’s Target Range School District. Schmidt added that she and then-Paxson Principal Kelly Chumrau “worked pretty hard to create a situation where parents would feel comfortable putting their children in this new way of learning.”

A group of Paxson teachers attended the Missoula school board’s June 14 meeting to voice support for changing the school’s DLI program to a Spanish-as-a-second-language model. Credit: Alex Sakariassen/MTFP

In April 2013, the MCPS board of trustees unanimously approved the DLI proposal, and Paxson began preparing to implement the program the following fall. Schmidt and others involved with crafting the program had already looked into similar initiatives in other states, and they settled on Utah as an inspirational model and critical resource partner. Lawmakers there had approved a statewide program in 2007 supporting dual-language immersion in public schools, and by the time MCPS began exploring its own program, Utah had 20,000 students enrolled at 98 DLI schools with focuses on Spanish, Chinese, French and Portuguese. Utah had also developed a statewide system for training teachers how to deliver DLI instruction — a system that Montana has never had.

“Utah was super open, and they allowed us to engage in all that training at no cost to the school district,” Schmidt said. “We had to pay for our travel to get there, and of course we needed to pay for our supplies for our classrooms. But it was really amazing to not have to pay for the training and the expertise. They gave us all kinds of great consultative advice.”

But without similar state-level support at home, Paxson’s DLI initiative was destined for a series of changes that would gradually distance it from the Utah model and help set the stage for a tense showdown over the program’s future.

GROWING PAINS

Paxson eased into its new Spanish immersion model in fall 2013, offering the program exclusively to kindergarten and first-grade classes while continuing to maintain non-DLI classrooms at those levels. Jane Doherty joined the school as a fourth-grade English teacher that year and, after attending a weeklong training in Salt Lake City, started the 2014-15 school year as Paxson’s Spanish-speaking second-grade teacher.

Doherty said she and her English-speaking second-grade counterpart were excited in those early years. The program adhered strongly to the Utah model, and initial apprehension among parents quickly morphed into interest and demand. By its second year, DLI at Paxson had switched from an opt-in opportunity to a lottery admission system — a development Doherty said fueled “a lot of disagreement and controversy” among neighborhood parents whose kids didn’t get in. 

At the same time, Paxson continued to run a parallel track of English-only classes that, according to an MCPS-produced timeline, never filled up. When the first cohort of 40 DLI students reached third grade, Doherty recalled, they ended up “bottlenecking” with 40 students from the English track — four full classes, two with Spanish exposure and two without — squeezed into three third-grade classrooms. Apostle had resigned from MCPS in March 2015 to take a superintendent position in Washington state, and Schmidt left a few months later for a district superintendent job in Whitefish. 

“It was a lot of years of trying to figure that out and trying different things every year and being left to our own devices in terms of trying to figure it out. The district trusted us. They said, ‘You guys are the experts. You do what you can to make it work.’”

Paxson Elementary teacher Jane Doherty

Schmidt said that shortly after her departure from MCPS, Paxson’s DLI program had diverged enough from the Utah model that it was no longer able to rely on Utah for institutional support. Doherty agreed, saying that by the time immersion students had moved into the upper grade levels, Paxson was no longer following Utah’s lead. Local challenges continued to stack up, with educators struggling to address individual student needs and meet both the program’s goals and the state’s expectations, and Doherty said it largely fell to Paxson’s teachers and staff to troubleshoot solutions on the fly, despite their lack of training in instructional design.

“It was a lot of years of trying to figure that out and trying different things every year and being left to our own devices in terms of trying to figure it out,” Doherty said. “The district trusted us. They said, ‘You guys are the experts. You do what you can to make it work.’”

The model played out in the classroom with students receiving a mix of English and Spanish instruction throughout the school day, depending on content area and grade level. Lower grades were taught math in Spanish, social studies in English, and science in a combination of the two. In upper grade levels, math lessons switched to English. Reading lessons were tailored for both languages — Spanish literacy in Spanish, English literacy in English. With the exception of fifth-graders, students at Paxson ultimately received 50% of their instruction in Spanish and the other 50% in English.

As Paxson continued to move toward dual-language immersion programming schoolwide, administrators and teachers were also wrestling with the question of what to do about new students with no Spanish familiarity transferring into the school. In Utah, DLI schools restrict enrollment after the first semester of second grade, but state and district policies prevented Paxson from implementing a similar restriction. According to Chumrau, who left Paxson in 2016 and is currently principal of the International School of Dakar in Senegal, the program has faced broader questions about equity for students both within Paxson and across the district since its inception.

 “Why should some students receive Spanish instruction while students across town would not have the same opportunity?”

Former Paxson Elementary Principal Kelly Chumrau

“People questioned equitability,” Chumrau wrote via email. “Why should some students receive Spanish instruction while students across town would not have the same opportunity? The Paxson teachers worked so hard to meet the needs of all of their students but it became increasingly difficult to support students who came to Paxson after second grade who had not been exposed to Spanish.”

Put another way, Doherty said, the past nine years have “just been, for all of us, a very long and very demanding road.”

TIPPING POINT

As Jenica Andersen’s son was nearing the end of his second-grade year at Paxson this May, she received a text message from a fellow parent suggesting that a tectonic shift was in the offing. Andersen had been a fan of the DLI program from day one, foregoing a move from the Paxson area to Missoula’s Rattlesnake neighborhood in order to ensure that her son and later her daughter could attend. But the text — a picture of a flyer, she said — claimed the program was “more or less in jeopardy or going to be removed.” Andersen said she reacted with “utter disbelief.”

“It was shocking and heartbreaking and disappointing, and I was in total confusion as to what was really happening,” Andersen said.

Andersen attended a school board meeting that week, joining a chorus of parental voices supporting the program and demanding more information about the proposed change. She said she walked away from the meeting feeling “sadness, confusion, heartache,” and wondering why she and other Paxson parents hadn’t been consulted earlier.

“I was losing sleep over it. It’s a really serious impact on these kids’ futures.”

Paxson Principal Julie Robitaille told MTFP that’s not how she’d envisioned things going down. 

She said that last fall, as she and the Paxson staff were discussing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that some students needed extra time to catch up on lessons interrupted by the abrupt shifts between hybrid and in-person instruction. Because of those shifts, she said, students in lower grades — specifically kindergarten and first grade — hadn’t gotten the same consistency in Spanish instruction as their pre-pandemic counterparts. Robitaille added that the district’s adoption in 2020 of a new math curriculum that emphasized verbal problem-solving raised new challenges around delivering core content in a linguistically immersive setting.

“I totally admit the timeline was short,” Robitaille said. “And I take responsibility for, you know, in retrospect, I could have reached out to the families and talked more about that math aspect.”

“It wasn’t a decision made in haste. It was a decision that’s been unfolding over the last nine years, and it just reached that point where we needed to make a change.”

Paxson Elementary Principal Principal Julie Robitaille

Under rules established by the state Office of Public Instruction and Board of Public Education, Montana public schools are required to meet certain student performance standards in core content areas to maintain their accreditation. Doherty pointed to math in particular as presenting a special challenge in adhering to both state requirements and the DLI model. Even under the district’s earlier curriculum, she said, she was teaching math at a slower pace and was often several units behind second-grade teachers at other schools in the district. She was able to keep pace this past school year, she added, only because Paxson “realized that we couldn’t teach this content in Spanish.”

In January, Robitaille and Superintendent Rob Watson began meeting with Paxson teachers and staff to talk about once more tweaking the program to meet those new challenges. Robitaille said she hadn’t anticipated reaching consensus as quickly as they did, but by June, 32 of the school’s teachers and staff, including Doherty, had signed a statement supporting Paxson’s shift from immersion to a Spanish-as-a-second-language model.

“It wasn’t a decision made in haste,” Robitaille said. “It was a decision that’s been unfolding over the last nine years, and it just reached that point where we needed to make a change.”

“Some kids flourished under that model and did really well, and other kids not only were not learning Spanish, but they also weren’t learning math either, which caused other concerns.”

Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Rob Watson

Another factor that weighed heavily in the arguments for change was the notion of equity. That word has gained a heightened profile in Montana over the past year due to its prominence in district-level policy revisions and debates about the word’s inclusion in Montana’s educator code of ethics. MCPS adopted its own policy emphasizing equity and inclusion last year. But “equity” has been kicking around the education industry for decades, and as discussion of Paxson’s future spilled into the public sphere, some teachers and parents began to share stories about individual students having a hard time with Spanish-language instruction and refugee families turned away from the school due to linguistic hurdles.

What Watson heard “loud and clearly” from Paxson teachers, he said, was that some students were missing out, not only on Spanish fluency but on core content knowledge.

“Some kids flourished under that model and did really well, and other kids not only were not learning Spanish, but they also weren’t learning math either, which caused other concerns,” Watson said. “So I think there was a need, and I think they’ll see that this fall, to just sort of step back and reassess.”

FALLOUT

Not all Paxson teachers are on board with the change. Fifth-grade teacher Kim Olson told MCPS trustees on June 14 she was “the only teacher with my thumb clearly down when it came to being OK with scaling down dual immersion.” She said she felt “blindsided” by the new direction and implored the board to resist it.

“Neither an exposure [model] nor a Spanish-as-a-second-language model will be sufficient substitutes for immersion,” Olson said. “It will not produce the same outcomes, and I know because I taught both exposure models and Spanish-as-a-second-language for 15 years prior to teaching at Paxson … The bottom line is immersion works.”

Andersen and other parents opposed to the elimination of DLI at Paxson agree, and they say they have yet to see compelling — or any — evidence that the program wasn’t working. Spanish immersion is a popular and proven approach elsewhere in Missoula, namely at the private tuition-funded Missoula International School, and while OPI was unable to provide information on other DLI programs in Montana, the agency continues to support tribal language immersion programs in Native communities across the state.

Adrienne Tranel, a Missoula attorney with three children currently at Paxson and a fourth who will eventually attend the school, said what she believes is lacking from the Paxson debate is hard data showing the need for a change. Watson did present a spreadsheet to the MCPS board showing that younger Paxson students in particular are reading at levels one to two grades below the benchmarks for their grades. But, Tranel stressed, Watson also acknowledged during the meeting that the trend is similar among students at other Missoula schools — meaning, she said, that student performance isn’t the result of a failure in Paxson’s DLI model.

“In fact,” Tranel said, “reading is not something that’s done in Spanish. Science and social studies are taught in Spanish. In some grades math is taught in Spanish. So it wasn’t even like a Spanish benchmark. The data was really disingenuous and it wasn’t indicative of what was actually happening.”

“Neither an exposure [model] nor a Spanish-as-a-second-language model will be sufficient substitutes for immersion. It will not produce the same outcomes, and I know because I taught both exposure models and Spanish-as-a-second-language for 15 years prior to teaching at Paxson.”

Paxson Elementary fifth-grade teacher Kim Olson

Doherty maintains that the anecdotes shared by staff at public meetings — about difficulty retaining teachers over the years and the challenge of providing students with special needs the education they’re guaranteed under law — are the compelling data. After nine years on the front lines of the program, she said, teachers felt exhausted and isolated from other schools and peers in the district.

But Paxson parents’ consistently biggest point of contention is the process that led to the change. By the time Robitaille began circulating a survey to gauge parents’ sentiment about the program, Tranel claims, the decision to abandon dual-language immersion had already been made. Results of that survey show that more than three-quarters of responding parents strongly agreed their children benefited from the program, and nearly half agreed or strongly agreed that having 50% of daily academic content delivered in Spanish benefited students regardless of academic level or learning challenges. 

“What’s been especially disappointing is that the parents came together and with a collective voice requested that the process just be slowed down and for us to see data and to be incorporated, and that was an effort toward building trust,” Andersen said. “It wasn’t an effort toward stopping what needed to happen, if that is ultimately what needed to happen.”

Under the new model, which goes into effect this fall, students will receive 45 minutes of Spanish language instruction per day — or up to 90 if they choose to dedicate an additional 45 minutes of tailored instruction time to the language. According to Robitaille, that tailored-time option is designed to address individual student needs, including those arising from pandemic disruptions.

While a majority of the staff agreed to the broader shift away from DLI, Robitaille said, she had hoped to bring parents to the table to help hammer out the details of what, exactly, Paxson’s new Spanish-as-a-second-language model will look like. But before that could happen, word of the internal discussion got out and criticism, allegations and grievances took off. Robitaille said she understands that as an administrator she faces an uphill battle to rebuild the trust that’s been eroded over the past two months, and she and Doherty both hope that parents will be willing to help shape the new program. 

Asked if the situation has inspired any advice for other Montana schools interested in pursuing new instructional initiatives, Robitaille recommended assembling a steering committee to “map out the entire plan from initiation to implementation to assessment and review.”

“Our DLI program began with such a committee, which included the University of Montana, but the full-scale model and implementation has sadly never been realized,” Robitaille said. “My goal now is to build on what we have learned and the expertise and resources we have within our school to create a model Spanish-as-a-second-language elementary school program. We will take the correct steps to plan for a curricular scope and sequence, assess benchmarks, and review the program, all in cooperation with the district and stakeholders.”

In Tranel’s view, though, Paxson parents have already been deprived of not only a seat at the table, but a choice in the future of their children’s education. The process demonstrated a failure of leadership, she said, in understanding what immersion schools can do, and in consulting the community about a significant change to Paxson’s identity. As a supporter of public schools, Tranel said, she plans to keep her children enrolled at Paxson — a decision Andersen is still weighing. But, Tranel continued, the debate over DLI at her kids’ school has shaken her confidence that things won’t play out differently in the future.

“That rupture of trust has been really hard to deal with, because we want to believe that if there’s a major change occurring, not just in curriculum but in who the school really is and what we’re about and what we’re presenting, parents should be informed of that. And I have no confidence that we’ll ever be informed of major changes that are occurring.”

This article was updated July 11, 2022, to correct an error. In June (not May), 32 Paxson teachers and staff signed a statement of support (not an agreement) recommending Paxson’s shift from immersion to a Spanish-as-a-second-language model.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...