Foreign language future up in air

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Nearly two years after giving the green light to a parent-funded elementary school Spanish program, the Steamboat Springs School District is taking a closer look at whether foreign language instruction deserves a higher priority within the school system, particularly at the elementary level.

But if and when foreign language instruction finds a permanent home in district elementary schools is a decision ultimately to be made by the School Board, district officials say. And in a climate of continuing budget cuts, it remains unclear in which direction the School Board will go.

What does seem certain is that any potential decision will hinge on where School Board members think a comprehensive, seamless kindergarten-through-12th grade foreign language program fits into their and the community's educational priorities.

"If we can't do everything, what's most important?" Superintendent Donna Howell asked last week. "I think the struggle is balancing all the needs in a time of shrinking revenues."

School Board President Paula Stephenson could not be reached for comment.

The district has paid nothing for the elementary Spanish program, which began in February 2003, after a group of parents approached district officials about self-funding a part-time teacher to introduce the language to third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Strawberry Park and Soda Creek elementary schools.

The district accepted the proposal, but made it clear it would not pick up the tab for the program in future years, particularly without an established K-12 foreign language program. Relying primarily on money raised through a grocery store gift card program, the parent information committees at both Steamboat Springs public elementary schools have been able to provide enough money to keep the program rolling into its third year. The Steamboat Springs Education Fund has contributed $15,000 to the program during the past two years.

Bette Vandahl, a Strawberry Park parent and member of its Parent Information Committee, or PIC, said parents are willing to continue funding the program on their own.

"Of course it would be great for the school district to take over funding," Vandahl said. "But the parents are willing to continue funding what we can."

But there's also a desire to see the program expand to include all elementary students, not just those in the third, fourth and fifth grades. Studies indicate that students' levels of language proficiency are directly related to how early instruction begins and how often instruction takes place.

For that expansion to take place, district officials say an educationally sound program must be developed, one that would incorporate all four district schools.

This summer, a group of three district foreign language teachers, including elementary Spanish teacher Ann Coon, began to put together a process for evaluating the elementary program, surveying district stakeholders on their interest in foreign language instruction for Steamboat's students and capturing what the ideal K-12 program would look like.

The ideal program, Coon said, would begin in kindergarten with three 20-minute classes per week. When students reached the first grade, the program would expand to 30 minutes of daily instruction.

"That's in an ideal world and an ideal situation," said Coon, who spends 20 minutes, twice a week with combined classes in the current program. "That's not what we expect the district to do. We know there are financial and scheduling constraints. But that's what the research says would be best."

A comprehensive or "articulated" program also would have ramifications at the middle school and high school. The elementary Spanish program already has affected the middle school.

Middle school sixth-graders take either Spanish or French for one quarter, providing them the opportunity to "explore" the language, middle school Spanish teacher Nanette Waneka said. Before the implementation of the elementary Spanish program, the course served its purpose well.

But with all of the middle school's incoming students now having experience in Spanish, teachers had to revise course curriculum to keep up with their advanced progress, Waneka said. For the first time, the school is giving its sixth-grade Spanish students a textbook.

Even Waneka's seventh-graders are demonstrating the effect of the elementary Spanish program. Those students are only one chapter behind their eighth-grade peers, she said.

Teachers such as Waneka are thrilled about the success of the elementary program and optimistic that the district's foreign language program will expand in coming years. But they also understand the difficulties, particularly as they pertain to staffing and scheduling, not to mention funding.

Superintendent Howell also said she'd like to see an articulated K-12 program but admitted that it's not likely to happen in the short term.

"There's a huge value to it," Howell said. "In a world of unlimited resources, I believe starting a foreign language program at the elementary level is ideal."

Second-language instruction also improves critical-thinking skills and teaches a respect for other cultures, Content Standards Director Kelly Stanford said.

Steamboat's changing demographics also underscore the relevance of implementing an expanded foreign language program, district officials and teachers said.

"When you look at our community and our country, there's a greater need for bilingual people," Strawberry Park teacher Judy Ross said.

Regardless of what happens, Coon and others will continue to move forward with the existing elementary program, provided the district continues to support it.

"We have a good program," Coon said. "We'd just like more of a good thing."

-- To reach Brent Boyer call 871-4234

or e-mail bboyer@steamboatpilot.com

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