As the Hispanic population continues to increase at Woodside Elementary School in Hailey, some parents of non-Hispanic students have become dissatisfied with the education their children were receiving and have removed them from the school.
"Everything that goes on there is half in Spanish, and my son was being denied half his education," said Hailey business owner Rick Silvia, who moved his fourth-grade son from Woodside Elementary to Bellevue Elementary at the beginning of this school year.
"This is America and we speak English," Silvia said. "If we go to a meeting over there, we have to listen, in our own country, to half of it being spoken in English and half of it spoken in Spanish. It's ridiculous."
Blaine County School District officials acknowledge that some parents of non-Hispanic students have removed their children from the school, but the district does not keep statistics on why parents made that decision.
"It think it's unfortunate that people feel like they have to pull their children out of the school because there are too many Hispanics," said School District Superintendent Lonnie Barber. "We believe that Woodside Elementary is giving a quality education to every student. Woodside has some challenges that some of our other schools don't, but they've been able to overcome many of those challenges."
Woodside Elementary, now in its fourth year of operation, has more than double the Hispanic population of the school district overall. According to statistics provided by the school district, the Hispanic population at the school was 53 percent in 2006, 56 percent in 2007, 58 percent in 2008 and 61 percent at the beginning of this school year.
District-wide, the Hispanic population at the end of last school year was 29.1 percent, up from 27.7 percent as recorded with the district in February 2008.
Woodside isn't the only elementary school in the district with a Hispanic population higher than the district overall.
At the beginning of this school year, both Bellevue Elementary School and Hemingway Elementary School in Ketchum had Hispanic populations of 34 percent. Hailey Elementary School's Hispanic population was slightly below the district average at 26 percent.
Barber acknowledged at a September school board meeting that the Hispanic population continues to increase in Blaine County schools, particularly for younger children, as more families migrate to the Wood River Valley from Mexico and other points south.
The district does not know how many of those children are in the United States illegally. Parents are required to provide proof of Blaine County residency but are not required to provide proof of legal residency in the U.S.
The biggest challenge facing educators with students new to the U.S. is that many speak little or no English.
District-wide, 19.5 percent of the students are ranked as "LEP," an acronym that stands for "limited English proficient."
The percentage of LEP students at Woodside Elementary is much higher. According to figures from last spring's Idaho Standard Achievement Tests, 61.5 percent of Woodside Elementary's third-graders are rated as LEP, 55.3 percent of its fourth-graders and 40 percent of its fifth-graders.
The school district has an extensive Dual Immersion program, in which students are instructed half in English and half in Spanish. Typically, Dual Immersion classes are comprised of half Hispanic and half non-Hispanic students.
In addition to those students' learning a second language, they ultimately test higher in other subjects than do students not enrolled in Dual Immersion. Dual Immersion students might lag behind their counterparts in the early years of their education, but statistics show that Blaine County Dual Immersion students typically exceed their counterparts in test scores after being enrolled in the program for five or six years.
Of Woodside Elementary's 363 students, 160 are enrolled this year in Dual Immersion.
District officials also point out that not counting the LEP students, Woodside Elementary students score comparable to students at other elementary schools in the district. For example, 92.3 percent of Woodside's non-LEP students were rated proficient or advanced in last spring's ISAT reading scores. That number compares with 91.4 percent at Bellevue Elementary, 96 percent at Hailey Elementary and 92.5 percent at Hemingway Elementary.
Regardless of test scores, some parents of non-Hispanic students remain dissatisfied with the education their children were receiving at Woodside.
Hailey resident Glenn Irons said he moved his son, now a fourth-grader, out of Woodside Elementary last year and enrolled him at Hailey Elementary.
"We're totally fed up with this crap," Irons said. "There are a lot of people who are fed up with this. My son was scoring in the 65-70 percentile in Woodside. As soon as he got out of that fricking school he did so much better.
"I'm just fed up with Dual Immersion. We don't need to speak Spanish—this is America. I may sound like a racist, but that's too bad."
Silvia said the issue isn't about race, but about education and cultural differences.
"Don't make me sound like a racist," he said. "I'm Jewish; I can't be a racist. I just don't want my son exposed to that culture. That's not American culture and we don't want it."
A third parent who removed her child from the school initially spoke on the record to the Idaho Mountain Express but later asked to not have her name used because she feared recrimination against her son.
Woodside Principal Brad Henson, who came to the school district at the beginning of the school year, said he heard about possible concerns from non-Hispanic parents before accepting the job.
"But since I've been here, I've not had one parent come to me and complain about the high Hispanic population," Henson said. "I'm aware that there might be people out there saying this, but I've not heard it at all. I would hope for whatever it is, it's not racism because that would disappoint me very much.
"I'm new to this, and I come here with a new perspective and don't want to focus on the past. If people did leave, I hope they will come back.
"To me, they're all just kids. My job is to educate kids, and I love them all."
Henson said another reason for Dual Immersion is to teach children to respect and understand different cultures.
"I hope that eventually these biases and cultural differences will work themselves out," he said.
Terry Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org