After intense rallying, parents win reprieve for Glendale German program

A Franklin Elementary School parent wears a sign that says
A Franklin Elementary School parent wears a sign that says "I love German Immersion" at a Tuesday night meeting in Glendale.
Tami Abdollah/KPCC
A Franklin Elementary School parent wears a sign that says
Parents hold signs up at a meeting with district and school officials Tuesday night on the possible phasing out of the German immersion program at Franklin Elementary School in Glendale.
Tami Abdollah/KPCC
A Franklin Elementary School parent wears a sign that says
Standing and sitting room only at a Franklin Elementary School meeting Tuesday night that brought more than 200 angry and frustrated parents to the auditorium to talk with school and district officials.
Tami Abdollah/KPCC

School officials in Glendale have learned the hard way what happens when parents are left out of the loop. But after a public apology by the district’s superintendent, the creation of a new task force, and an appearance by Germany’s deputy consul general, some of the outrage has been assuaged.

It all began last Tuesday when the district’s deputy superintendent John Garcia recommended the board phase out the German language immersion program at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School to make room for a new French program. Garcia said the German program did not have enough interest, and was having difficulty finding credentialed and qualified teachers.

The board appeared to come to the agreement after about an hour that included a presentation and discussion. Stunned teachers at Franklin were told of the discussion the next morning; parents learned about it by email or word of mouth.

“We had never heard anything like this,” said Mary Vardaman, whose son is in the kindergarten German immersion class. Her husband was at the board meeting where he happened to see the presentation. “There was no warning whatsoever that the German program was in jeopardy.”

In about a week, a couple dozen parents helped mobilize an assault on the Glendale Unified School District that involved hundreds of sent emails, dozens of phone calls and multiple meetings.

“My Blackberry just bonged and bonged and bonged all day,” said Mary Boger, a member of the school board. “My grandkids asked me what’s that, and I told them there are some very anxious parents.”

The magnet school is the hub of the district’s dual-language immersion program, with many parents driving across L.A. County to give their kids what they describe as a private school perk in a public school setting.

At an hour-long special meeting Tuesday night that was also broadcast on Ustream by a parent, more than 200 parents jammed into the auditorium at Franklin Elementary to express their anger and frustration.

If the parents were blindsided by the decision to phase-out the program, school officials were equally surprised by their reaction.

“As the representative of this district, I do want to apologize, because obviously we had a breakdown in communication,” said Glendale Unified School District superintendent Richard Sheehan, as he stared out into a sea of “I Love German Immersion” T-shirts, buttons and signs. “...We owe it to you to communicate better.”

Sheehan said the district will enroll a full German kindergarten class for next fall, and create a task force of parents and staff to look into the long-term viability of the program. The task force will return with results of its review by mid-April. It will report the findings to the school board and at a meeting with parents, Sheehan said. A French immersion program will still be added next year as planned, Sheehan said.

He said the officials will also plan to assess any future changes to the dual-language immersion program in the summer to allow parents more time to weigh in on changes without worrying about application deadlines.

Glendale Unified School District offers one of the nation’s leading dual-immersion programs with six languages, including German, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Japanese and Armenian, offered on nine campuses. French will make it seven languages.

David Zaft and his wife, Maria Mastroyannis, had been working nonstop since they learned in an email from another parent Wednesday that the district was looking to phase out the German program. They brought a list of parents interested in enrolling their kids in the German immersion program in the future to the Tuesday meeting.

Their 6-year-old daughter Fanny Jo, is a first-grader in the German immersion program and the couple chose to drive her to Glendale from their home in Silver Lake rather than enroll her in the charter school down the road. They hoped to have their son Linus, 3, join his sister. “He would be starting in 2013,” Zaft said. “...We hope he will be.”

Even Marc Eichhorn, the deputy consul general for the German Consulate in Los Angeles, spoke to parents and school officials at Tuesday night's meeting.

“Normally it is not the duty of people in my position to interfere in affairs [such as] education in our host nation,” Eichhorn said. But in this case, the German government also had a small interest. They donated a roughly $6,700 grant to support the immersion program. Eichhorn told parents at Tuesday night’s meeting that the Consulate will do whatever it can to support to program’s continuation including help find teachers.

After the meeting, parents said they were cautiously optimistic.

“I think they heard our voices [and] I hope they see us as a parent body that is committed, invested and involved,” said Audrey Klein, who helped found the German immersion program.

Vardaman said she thought the meeting went "extremely well" but that it would also "take some time before the board regains the trust" of the parents. Many parents milled around to chat with school and district officials for more than an hour after the meeting.

“We had a failure to communicate,” Boger said. “But it seems to have worked out for the best. Everybody is looking for students and everybody is looking for teachers.”

Before the German immersion program began at Franklin in 2008, the school was actually in danger of closing because of low-enrollment numbers, now it is facing the opposite problem. At more than 480 students, the school has a growing capacity problem that district officials say must be addressed soon. The tiny school is projected to max out at more than 600 students in just a few years. A separate task force is examining that issue, Sheehan said.

Boger said if the German program is deemed viable, the district could always look at putting the French program at another campus. She said voters approved a $270 million school bond measure in April that could be used to build another classroom at Franklin at some point, too.

She made haste to note: “Whatever decisions come to be, it will be one where parents are fully involved throughout the way.”

Tami Abdollah can be contacted by email and Twitter (@LATams).