The group's mandate will be to find a way to introduce some type of language instruction in elementary and middle schools without overburdening the district's overall budget or interfering with long-term strategic plans.
It won't be easy. The issue of expanding language instruction into lower grades has been discussed for years, but earlier cost estimates of up to $2 million a year stifled progress.
This year there's a new urgency, stemming from the school board's turnaround last spring on Mandarin immersion (MI) <0x2104> when it voted in January to reject MI and then reversed the vote later in the face of statements by MI proponents that they would pursue a charter school in Palo Alto.
It was during the reversal debacle that the board indicated it would actively explore the feasibility of expanding language into lower grades by creating a FLES task force of school officials and parents.
There are a huge number of questions. It is completely unclear what FLES means in terms of the number of classes or even grade levels covered, and how to implement it among a dozen elementary and two middle schools. There is not even a clear understanding whether instruction should strive for "exposure," "preparation for high school language," "proficiency" or "fluency."
From the extensive comments on the Town Square community forum (www.PaloAltoOnline.com) there is a high level of interest. Also evident is an undercurrent of leftover anger on the part of those who opposed MI because it would serve only a small number of students.
One Town Square posting suggested thoughtfully that FLES should include a comprehensive exposure to the culture behind the language.
So the range of effort (and expenditure) envisioned is virtually unlimited, from a modest linguistic sampler platter to a broad cultural exposure.
The school board and some parents have asked for a definition of terms as soon as possible in November. Board members and district administrators then would translate those definitions into a formal assignment for the task force. A full task force report would be due next spring.
Starting from a common ground of shared definitions of terms — a kind of intellectual level playing field — is a wise course.
The same holds true for developing a clearly defined set of expectations.
In one sense, there is a parallel between the point we are now at in FLES and the district's decision last year to have a feasibility study done on MI, with donated funds. The parallel is that if the task force returns with strong recommendations that FLES should be a priority the school board would be extremely hard pressed to say no to moving ahead with some type of program — despite the fact that the board stopped short of committing to implementing FLES, in any form.
A negative decision would still be viewed as a betrayal or at least a serious cop out, even though the board next year will be quite different than this year's board after the Nov. 6 election.
But perhaps it's time for the district to think beyond the traditional classroom-based model of language instruction. In the heart of Silicon Valley, there are certainly opportunities to make use of imaginative computer-based language-instruction techniques available commercially. Some may already be available from educational sources.
The district could explore a program similar to its successful SPECTRA art program, where qualified specialists move from school to school.
An even more direct comparison would be to its music-instruction program, which uses computer feedback to students about their playing. The student plays to the computer, a special program records it and provides instant feedback plus a report to the instructor on the student's progress or areas needing more attention.
Thinking outside the box is something understandable in any language, and this seems to us to be the perfect time and place for a solid dose of that.