"Our goal is exposure. Proficiency doesn't begin until middle school," said Michael Thompson, assistant head of school at Keys School, where twice-weekly lessons focus on vocabulary and culture.
Whether to aim for exposure or proficiency was one of many questions left unanswered at the district's Board of Education meeting last week, when staff sketched a rough plan to study foreign-language options. The board directed a new committee, called Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES), to define its scope and goals as a first step.
Committee members may not have to look far for ideas. At a handful of Palo Alto's private schools, foreign language instruction is the norm for all students.
Administrators at these schools agree that fluency and proficiency are unrealistic goals for elementary schools. With varying lengths of instruction time, they seek language familiarity instead.
The goal at Stratford School on North California Avenue is to train kids to communicate in simple ways by middle school, said Principal Sherrie Paregian.
"We're hoping that the students will have an understanding of basic conversation in Spanish," she said.
Students receive twice-weekly, 45-minute Spanish lessons beginning in first grade, she said.
Rudimentary conversational skills by fifth grade are also the focus at Emerson School, said school President Charles Bernstein. Students receive 30 minutes of both Mandarin and Spanish instruction three times a week from kindergarten to third grade and 45 minutes thereafter, he said.
At a recent Spanish lesson, instructor Aurora Collantes urged fourth-grade students to describe their friends.
"Is he tall?" one student asked another.
"He is tall and handsome" came the reply, amid a chorus of giggles.
The focus is on exposure to language and culture through introductory after-school Spanish lessons at Challenger School, said Principal Kelly Woods.
"It's to spark an interest in learning a foreign language and being exposed to basic information about another culture," he said.
Students from kindergarten to eighth grade can sign up for a once-a-week Spanish class of 45 minutes, he said. It is the same format offered for activities such as chess, and students are charged $415 for 30 lessons, he said.
Early language instruction also aims primarily for exposure at Keys School, Thompson said.
Elementary students attend semi-weekly Spanish lessons of 30 minutes from kindergarten to second grade, and 45 minutes thereafter until sixth grade, he said. The curriculum mixes vocabulary focus with cultural lessons, he said.
Many at last week's board meeting also questioned how to measure student ability and, by extension, the success of a foreign language program.
The difficulty of measuring ability in young students is one reason early classes at Keys focus on exposure rather than proficiency, Thompson said. But younger children can be tested in vocabulary as lessons progress, he said.
Classroom materials can help monitor progress, according to Paregian. Stratford's textbooks contain built-in assessments that students take every couple of months, she said.
But testing young children in any standardized format is a difficult endeavor, said Bernstein of Emerson school.
Emerson is a Montessori school, which shuns schoolwide testing in favor of individual attention. Foreign-language sessions have six to nine students per instructor, a ratio Bernstein admitted was unrealistic for Palo Alto's public schools, where class size is capped at 20.
Still, classroom conversation should be emphasized over testing, he said.
"If you have to worry too much about the testing and effectiveness side," it draws attention from individual speaking ability, he said.
Verbal communication is the exclusive focus of Emerson's instruction until third grade, he said.
"We specifically avoid the written word when it would interfere with English learning," he said. Writing and reading in other languages in early years disrupts first-language learning, he said.
Being able to spell and write basic phrases is part of early learning at Keys and Stratford, Thompson and Paregian said.
The school district's language committee must also look at how additional lessons would impact the school day, said Becki Cohn-Vargas, a group member and district director of elementary education.
Budgeting time is tricky, said Bernstein, whose Emerson school offers three hours of instruction a week, twice the amount Keys or Stratford do.
Yet Emerson has nine-hour school days. The public district's days average 5 1/2 instructional hours, not including recess, lunch or other breaks, Cohn-Vargas said.
Lengthening the school day to make time for language instruction could be an option, Cohn-Vargas.
"We haven't narrowed or limited anything," she said. All options are up for consideration, she added.