Saratoga County

Saratoga Springs school district considers foreign languages at elementary level

The city school district may become one of the few districts in the region to offer foreign language
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The city school district may become one of the few districts in the region to offer foreign language instruction as a regular part of the elementary school class day.

Most schools in the Capital Region start foreign language instruction in middle school or later. But research has shown that the brain development in young children enables them to learn foreign languages more easily than older students, said Thomas Mele, the district’s assistant superintendent for elementary education.

“It’s harder to learn a language as we grow older,” Mele said.

The city school district Board of Education was presented a proposal this month recommending that French and Spanish instruction start as early as kindergarten.

Greer Miller, principal of the Division Street Elementary School, chaired a 12-person foreign language committee. The parents and teachers on the committee met for a year and investigated introducing foreign language into the district’s six elementary schools.

Their detailed report to the school board recommends a $651,000 package that would require the hiring of nine foreign language teachers.

“Foreign language will not be an add-on,” Miller said.

In kindergarten through grade 4, foreign language would be taught twice a week in 20-minute sessions. Half of the year, Spanish would be taught and half the year, French.

In grade five, the two weekly sessions would be extended to 30 minutes each. In 6th grade, the final elementary grade before students go to the Maple Avenue Middle School, the language classes would be 40 minutes long and taught every other day.

Miller said the Harrison Central School District in Westchester County currently has an elementary school language program similar to the one proposed in the Saratoga Springs City School District.

Guilderland Central School District and some of the Albany city schools also have elementary language programs.

The Fort Plain Central School District in Montgomery County has been teaching Spanish in elementary school for 20 years.

Fort Plain District Superintendent Douglas Burton said in a May 2007 Sunday Gazette story that the foreign language commitment grew from the realization that students who are fluent in a second language have a distinct advantage in an ever more global society that often requires communication in more than one language.

Miller said her committee found that starting foreign language instruction in the early grades is a way of “making sure they [the students] remain competitive with the rest of the world.”

The committee conducted a number of surveys and found that parents believe French and Spanish would be the best languages to start teaching in the early grades. Parents also strongly supported the language proposal.

Foreign languages have been taught to elementary school students in special enrichment programs after school and during the summer. Parents sponsored these programs by paying for them. For example, parents paid $150 per week for a two-week summer language program attended by their elementary school student.

“It was a very comprehensive report,” said city school board president Frank Palumbo.

Instead of offering the new program in all six elementary schools, a pilot program could be conducted next school year in just three schools for $378,302, he said.

Palumbo said school administrators, including Superintendent Janice White, will be reviewing the elementary language proposal along with other proposals for the 2008-09 budget year.

“It has a budgetary component,” Palumbo said. “We will have school administrators look at it.”

Palumbo said school board members generally welcomed the proposal and the report. Yet, there is a concern about being able to locate and hire another four to nine foreign language teachers. Palumbo said foreign language teachers are hard to recruit.

“Like any good program, we are certainly interested,” Palumbo said. “But it needs to be evaluated.”

Palumbo asked his fellow school board members to “take it home, wrestle with it, and carefully go through the information.”

A final decision on whether the board will adopt the committee’s recommendations, or some version of it, will be made during board meetings and workshops on the district’s proposed 2008-09 budget over the next three months.

Categories: Schenectady County

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