Foreign language in elementary schools (FLES) is a good idea that needs more definition, Palo Alto's Board of Education told district representatives Tuesday night.
Board members asked representatives of the FLES committee, who presented plans for an implementation study to be completed in spring, for a concrete statement of the hypothetical program's goals and scope.
"What does proficiency mean?" board member Mandy Lowell asked.
"Would students in later grades be able to take art or PE in a second language?" board member Barb Mitchell asked.
The FLES committee should clearly define its aims and present them to the board in November -- a month earlier than previously announced -- Superintendent Kevin Skelly suggested. The board and FLES Committee representatives (Associate Superintendent Marilyn Cook and Director of Elementary Education Becki Cohn-Vargas) agreed.
The board passed a resolution to look at implementing languages in elementary schools district-wide last January. The plan presented by Cook Tuesday suggested possible members of the FLES Committee -- including parents, whom Cook said she will recruit starting this week -- and outlined the committee's research plan.
The study will be finished by next spring, in time to include it in discussions about a new strategic plan for the district, Cook said.
The planned implementation study brought before the board for guidance and will proceed with board input.
Community members speaking at the meeting seconded the board's call for clearly defined goals.
"There's a tremendous gap between language exposure and proficiency," said Wynn Hausser, one of six candidates for a school board seat in November's election. He encouraged the committee to consider middle-ground goals, such as preparing students to learn a language more quickly in high school.
Duveneck parent Catherine Crystal Foster echoed his concern, saying that community members have varying hopes for such a program.
"Some students only want to be better prepared for high-school language classes," while some want to learn multiple languages, she said.
"We need to have clearly articulated goals to avoid dividing a community that has different expectations," she said.
The board and community were also uncertain whether a new language program would be required of all students. The FLES study proposal suggested using the existing district policy as a guideline.
But the current policy is confusing -- while there is no foreign language requirement for graduation, many colleges require applicants to have completed a minimum number of semesters.
Both Skelly and board member Gail Price said the policy was outdated and not a good guideline.
In addition, because the current policy treats language as an elective, the board needs to decide whether FLES will part of the required core curriculum, said Melissa Baten Caswell, another school board candidate in the current election.
The program will be de facto exclusionary even if it is mandatory, said community member Betsy Allyn, former director of a school for children with learning disabilities.
"You will probably have 10 to 15 percent of children in this school district who can't participate because they are dyslexic or have language-acquisition problems," she said.
Lowell wanted to know if there would be exemptions for students who already speak a second language fluently.
After hearing board and community feedback, Skelly suggested that FLES representatives clarify the potential goals of a FLES program and report back to the board earlier than planned in November.
Meanwhile, the committee will begin work by selecting its members, including a handful of qualified parents.
Applications will be sent out this week and the selections will be made by Monday, Cook said.
Price asked how candidates would be judged.
"I know we have parents in this community who have double or triple Ph.D.s in world-language instruction," she said.
Skelly, who will be on the team selecting applicants, emphasized attitude over academic credentials.
"We're looking for folks that can be appropriate jurors … and are flexible in their thinking," he said.
Committee-member responsibilities will include semi-weekly meetings and several hours of reading in between, Cook predicted.
The committee will analyze several options for foreign language and present a spring recommendation that offers "the most bang for the buck," she said.
In other business, the board:
• Heard a report about enrollment numbers taken on the 11th day of school.
There are 11,172 students this year, up 235 from last year, a number that falls in the medium-growth projection range, Assistant Superintendent Scott Laurence said.
The average class size barely changed, from 19.9 last year to 19.8 this year.
Overflow figures for students show that 2.7 percent are attending schools outside their neighborhoods because of overcrowding.
• Discussed whether to accept a federal Foreign Language Assistance Program grant of about $198,000 to support the future Mandarin-immersion program and current high-school Mandarin instruction.
The funds would make Mandarin-immersion cost-neutral by covering start-up costs, which the district could match the grant with money already budgeted for high school Mandarin instruction.
The funds would also help improve technology within high-school Mandarin classrooms, Cook said.
The board will vote on whether or not to accept the grant at its next meeting Oct. 9.
• Heard a report about staffing that showed this year's teacher retention is at 95 percent, an increase from 68 percent in 2000.
• Unanimously approved the updated district budget for the year.