Prince George's County school officials are weighing whether to house Robert Goddard's French immersion program at the shuttered Greenbelt Middle School, a plan that is expected to cost about $200,000 and provide the possibility of expanding the program in the future.

A new Greenbelt Middle School opened Aug. 20, leaving the former 75-year-old school vacant. Earlier this year, the school board solicited proposals for the vacant building, which included moving Goddard's French immersion program to the school, leasing space in the building to Greenbelt at a cost of $144,000 per year, using the space as "swing space" in case of an emergency in the northern part of the county, or some combination of the suggestions.

Language immersion is a style of bilingual education in which students who are not fluent in a foreign language are taught all of their subjects in that language, learning the language through their studies of other subjects. The French immersion program at Robert Goddard, which includes 582 students, is currently housed with the Robert Goddard Montessori program, which has 555 students. The current facility, located in Seabrook, is filled beyond capacity, said Monica Goldson, acting chief operating officer for the county school system.

The French immersion program currently has a wait list, although officials were unsure of the exact number on the list.

At Tuesday night's school board meeting, acting Superintendent Alvin Crawley recommended using the Greenbelt building for the French immersion program—but did not advise expanding the program—and to use remaining space for emergency situations. Crawley said the cost of expanding the French immersion program — estimated to cost $8.5 million, not including additional faculty and staff — was not possible at this time, but the program might be expanded later if resources became available.

At the beginning of the school year, Laurel Elementary students were housed at the old Greenbelt Middle School when construction delayed Laurel Elementary's opening, which Goldson said illustrated the need to maintain available space.

"We would have been in a precarious situation if we did not have that swing space at Greenbelt Middle School to house those students," Goldman said.

Greenbelt Councilwoman Leta Mach urged the school board to still consider shared usage of the building, adding that the space could be used for tutoring, family counseling, youth basketball, school art classes and reading programs for residents when the space is not needed for emergency purposes.

School board chairwoman Verjeana Jacobs asked Crawley to investigate Mach's suggestion, while ensuring the school system would have "first dibs" on the space.

French immersion parent Andrew Smith urged the school board to consider expanding the program, noting the high marks the school has received.

School board member Edward Burroughs (Dist. 8) said if the Robert Goddard program was expanded, the John Hanson French Immersion School at Shugart in Temple Hills, in the southern portion of the county, should also be expanded "to ensure fairness and equity across our school district."

Jacobs asked Crawley and his staff to look into the board's questions regarding sharing space with Greenbelt, the costs of expanding both French immersion programs and the exact numbers of students on wait lists for both immersion programs, and to present the information at a future meeting, after which the school board would make a decision.

janfenson-comeau@gazette.net