Changes to Elementary Spanish Program Prompts Petition

Marybeth Dadd, a parent concerned about changes to the Fox Chapel Area School District’s elementary Spanish language program initiated a petition that garnered 191 signers. The petition cited the loss of one Spanish language teacher from the elementary program as possible evidence that the district is curtailing support for Spanish in the elementary grades.

When asked about the alleged “cuts,” FCASD Superintendent Dr. Gene Freeman said, “We are exploring the possibility of changing the elementary Spanish language program. We are looking into a more purposeful foreign language experience for our elementary students. With these possible changes on the horizon, it behooves us to not rush into a hire.”

A Spanish newsletter circulated on September 1 by the elementary Spanish instructor and available on her blog detailed changes to the schedule. District elementary students will continue to receive Spanish language lessons, albeit a reduced schedule: 12 weeks instead of 16 weeks per year. “This loss in exposure to foreign language for the students, while small, is regrettable, but unavoidable in our efforts to be purposeful,” said Freeman. “We will do everything we can to ensure our children benefit experientially in the near future.”

He explained further, “We offer German, French, Latin and Spanish in the middle school and high school, shouldn’t we explore ways to integrate our elementary foreign language curriculum with those programs before jumping to making a hire?”

Petitioners voiced concerns that the one remaining foreign language elementary instructor would be “overburdened” by these changes. Petition author Dadd explained her position, “I was concerned when the Spanish teacher position was not refilled that there would be less Spanish language exposure for students and the one remaining teacher would have too many students. There are 1900 elementary students who participate in this program during the year.” She added, “I wish we had been notified that these changes were being made.”

Adjusting the schedule offsets the loss of the second teacher, according to Freeman. “Based on the previous exposure schedule, the teacher has slightly more time per period to engage with students. The teacher is also retaining more planning periods than required.”

 

WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF A SUCCESSFUL ELEMENTARY, FOREIGN LANGUAGE PROGRAM?

Working with a foreign language curriculum expert, the District Team is evaluating, not only, the current elementary foreign language program, but also, establishing standards for the program going forward. “We are moving forward with this framework to make sure our language exposure program is the best it can be,” said Freeman.

Here are some key characteristics of a strong program:

  • Meaningful language lesson materials and activities.

Language learning takes place in meaningful, communicative context, including social situations, cultural experiences, lessons in other school subjects, songs, rhymes, games, and stories. A variety of authentic, culture-rich, and age-appropriate materials are key to foreign language learning.

  • Curricula based on the national foreign language standards.

The curricula in all grades focus on the “five Cs” of Communities, Communication, Cultures, Connections (to other subjects), and Comparisons (with other languages and cultures).

  • Clear program goals.

Clearly stated goals for the program and for each grade level.

  • Regular program evaluation.

In addition to assessing student progress and achievement, the language programs themselves should be assessed.

  • Accessibility for all students.

Foreign language classes should be open to all, regardless of academic goals, ethnic background, socioeconomic status or learning style. Every student can learn foreign languages.

  • Communication and coordination across content area.

In successful programs, language teachers incorporate other subject matter into their lessons, reinforcing and complementing instruction in these areas. “How will we weave the language exposure into other content area?” said Freeman.

  • Articulation among grades in elementary school and from elementary school to later grades.

Language skills are developed in a well-coordinated sequence in the elementary schools but also aligned with middle school and high school.

Source: Establishing High-Quality Foreign Language Programs in Elementary Schools, Perspectives on Policy and Practice: Northeast and Islands Regional Educational Laboratory at Brown University, December 2000.

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