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"Você fala português?"
Students in the Murray School District who had hoped to learn how to ask that question "Do you speak Portuguese?" as well other phrases in Portuguese as part of the district's inaugural dual immersion program, received disappointing news this week when the district canceled the program at Parkside Elementary School because of staffing issues.
After months of searching for a qualified Portuguese teacher, the district couldn't find a candidate to hire in time for the 2012-13 school year, according to Superintendent Steven Hirase.
"I express my regret and disappointment in the decision that we have had to make in canceling our Portuguese Dual Language Immersion program at this time. A sincere apology is extended to the parents and students who are impacted the most significantly," he said in a news release announcing the decision.
Hirase said it was difficult to find a teacher who had Portuguese language fluency in addition to elementary education training.
The decision to scrap the program two weeks before school begins isn't sitting well with the parents of 50 first-graders who signed up.
"Because of the decision, 50 kids are just left out. Another thing that bothers me is that they didn't even communicate with the parents that this was going on," said Juliana Brewer, whose son was among those enrolled in the program. "I know people who are moving to Murray because of [the program]."
Brewer said many parents are skeptical that Hirase couldn't find a qualified teacher. In a letter to parents, Hirase said the district ran into trouble with the visa process required to bring their top candidate to the U.S., Brewer said. But she wonders why the district didn't work harder to find a replacement.
"It was major lack of respect to everyone to cancel the program two weeks before school starts. A lot of kids don't even have a place to go or have to try to find a place," Brewer said. She added that her son was crushed to receive the news. Brewer, a native of Brazil, had touted the program all summer long, she said.
Portuguese was on the district's radar in light of success with the Spanish dual immersion program at Horizon Elementary School, which is entering its fourth year of operation.
Hirase acknowledged that the timing is less than ideal.
"We have been criticized for the timing of our decision, but the reason we waited as long as possible to announce this change was with genuine hopefulness that we would be able to have a qualified teacher in place and begin this new program for our district," Hirase said in a new release. He added it was "only after serious evaluation and concern" that the district made the decision to cancel.
Murray's decision comes at a time when Utah parents are increasingly enrolling their children in dual immersion programs offered at 78 elementary schools statewide. This year, approximately 14,000 children will start school in dual immersion programs in Utah, taught in Spanish, French and Chinese. Portuguese will be offered for the first time this year in elementary schools in the Alpine and Provo school districts.
Generally, demand for the programs is greater than the number of open slots, said Gregg Roberts, world-language specialist and dual language-immersion specialist at the Utah State Office of Education.
Students are taught entirely in the new language they are learning for half the day. The second half is spent learning in English.
To help add Portuguese programs, the state received grants from the Department of Defense, which has identified it as a language needed to communicate in Brazil and many African countries.
Utah is home to about 30,000 people fluent in Portuguese, Roberts said, including 15,000 people from Brazil and another 15,000 people who learned the language while serving missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
With Brazil one of the top LDS missionary destinations, the community is interested in children learning Portuguese, Roberts said.
Parents disappointed by the Murray district's decision had hoped to gather Thursday evening at a community meeting, but Brewer said those plans weren't welcomed by some school officials, Brewer said. She said it will take parents awhile to get over the abrupt cancellation of a program that they had high hopes for.
Parent Wagner Oliveira sent an e-mail to school officials, saying had he known the Portuguese program would be canceled, he might have considered trying to get into another dual immersion program like Spanish or French. He planned to drive his first-grader to Murray each day from West Valley City to attend the program. Now, his son will start at Granger Elementary School without a dual immersion classroom.
"I am very frustrated (to put it mildly) that you have chosen to cancel this program. This decision impacts not only my whole family and the families of the other children who are enrolled, but the entire community (global, really). It demonstrates to me that the Murray School District does not value the concept of international exchange and cultural enlightenment," Oliveira wrote in his e-mail.
"Now it is too late for us to enroll in a different dual immersion program and the opportunity to have our children in a program like this is now past, since they only allow first-graders to enroll."
Said Brewer: "It was bad for us, bad for the community and bad for the school."
About 300 parents upset about Murray School District's cancelation of a Portuguese Dual Language Immersion program are members of a Facebook page, "Stop Murray School District from canceling the Portuguese Dual Immersion!"