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News / Clark County News

Washougal budget cuts threaten dual language program at elementary school

District hosts intimate “listening tour” event to have face-to-face talks with concerned parents

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 10, 2024, 3:41pm
5 Photos
As parent Megan Davis listens, Alicia Johnson discusses her concerns about the proposal to halt enrollment in Hathaway Elementary School&rsquo;s Spanish dual language program with leaders in the Washougal School District on Tuesday.
As parent Megan Davis listens, Alicia Johnson discusses her concerns about the proposal to halt enrollment in Hathaway Elementary School’s Spanish dual language program with leaders in the Washougal School District on Tuesday. (Tommy Rhodes/for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — Megan Davis’ daughter hasn’t yet finished first grade, but she’s already learning a second language.

“My daughter is so excited to use Spanish, she loves learning it. I always had hopes that my kids would be hungry to learn and love learning,” said Davis, whose daughter is in the Spanish dual language program at Hathaway Elementary School in Washougal.

The program is still in its adolescence, having begun with its first kindergarten cohort in 2021. Despite the acclaim from parents including Davis, the Washougal School District is proposing pausing enrollment on the Hathaway program for next year amid its looming $3 million budget deficit — stripping the same opportunity to learn a new language from Davis’ younger son and dozens of incoming kindergartners.

“My son was excited. He assumes he’s going into Spanish like his sister because he hears her talking in it, counting in it,” Davis said. “I think once he realizes he’s not in the same program, it’ll be a real bummer for him.”

The pause doesn’t mean existing students in the program — who will move on to first, second and third grades next year — will stop their dual language learning. Instead, Hathaway’s incoming kindergarten class won’t have the option to enroll in the program.

If the program’s pause is made official, Davis said she will consider private school options for her son.

Chris Reykdal, Washington superintendent of schools, said in 2022 that his goal is for all students in Washington to have access to dual language programs by 2040.

“It’s so devastating to see this happen,” Davis said. “Why would we cut or pause this program when it’s an initiative from our state superintendent, and it’s going so successfully?”

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Cuts across Clark County

The effects of proposed school district budget cuts have touched almost every corner of Clark County.

The county’s largest districts — Evergreen Public Schools and Vancouver Public Schools — will cut millions of dollars from their budgets for the 2024-25 school year, amounting to the loss of hundreds of teachers, counselors, paraeducators and more.

Districts are largely united in their professed reasoning for the cuts. State funding provides only 70 percent or so of a district’s budget. Inflation has run rampant. Pandemic-era relief funding has been exhausted, while many of the services and positions it funded have been deemed necessary for the future.

The deficits put smaller districts such as Washougal — which has just 2,834 students this year — in a position to cut programs with tight-knit families and students, such as the Spanish dual language program at Hathaway.

“It’s painful on many levels for people who have dedicated their lives to this to see things go away,” said Chuck Carpenter, a Washougal school board director.

Les Brown, the district’s communications manager, said the program is deeply important to Washougal. By taking an enrollment pause, no staff will need to be cut in the short-term. Students in first, second and third grades who transfer into the district could even still enroll in the existing cohorts if their Spanish language abilities line up.

“There’s a body of research that shows pulling the rug out from under students in a program like this can cause a serious academic lag,” said Brown, advocating for the pause as an option against outright cuts. “That’s part of why the pause works, it helps us keep the same amount of staff but just shuffle them along in their grades.”

Face to face

Along with sending out surveys to families regarding the programs they want to keep most, Washougal has had a series of “listening tour” events where parents and community members sat down one-on-one with board members and school leaders.

Davis and other parents spoke with Superintendent Mary Templeton at such an event Tuesday evening at the American Legion building, a small meeting hall nestled in the woods along Washougal River Road.

Attendance was sparse — about a dozen parents filtered in and out over an hour. Many of them had come to speak about the Hathaway program specifically; Davis started a petition last month to advocate for the program and ask leaders to reconsider the pause. As of this week, the petition has more than 200 signatures.

“The way my daughter learned Spanish in the first month, I could see a huge difference in her conversational skills,” said Alicia Johnson, a parent who spoke with Templeton at the event.

Johnson said her daughter, a kindergartner in the Hathaway program, is already having full conversations with her grandparents, who only speak Spanish. Like Davis, Johnson has a second child who will start kindergarten in the fall.

“It breaks my heart to see my son won’t have the same chance. I’m really hoping and praying that we will get the funding for it,” Johnson said.

Carly Andre said she enrolled her son in the program because she felt a bilingual learning experience was a unique opportunity in a small community like Washougal. Even a brief pause on enrollment in the program, she said, would remove a critical educational opportunity for dozens of children.

“We don’t speak Spanish in our home, and now he knows more than any of us,” Andre said. “This is something that I wish I had for myself.”

Getting feedback

The intimate nature of the listening tours differs from the public comment section of board meetings, which regularly grow contentious and offer speakers no opportunity to hear direct responses from board members.

“I appreciate this approach, (a lot of people) are coming from a problem-solving perspective,” said Jake Healea, the principal of Canyon Creek Middle School. Healea also spoke with community members at Tuesday’s event about his role in making budget decisions. “A lot of this is people asking clarifying questions that we can answer as opposed to that more aggressive approach. This allows the board and leaders to listen and respond.”

Sara Kitchen, a grandparent in the district, came to the listening tour Tuesday to speak about her concerns over losing the community preschool program and other cuts.

Kitchen said she was surprised by the accessibility of school leaders, despite the feelings of disappointment that led her there.

“I’m not certain that what I’ve contributed will change the outcome. But I do feel heard,” she said.