Foreign language for first graders?
Publication Date: Friday Nov 25, 1994

SCHOOLS: Foreign language for first graders?

Committees look at teaching languages in elementary schools

Someday soon, Palo Alto elementary school children may be learning subjects like geography, social studies and literature--in French, German or Spanish.

"The world is getting smaller. The ability to be able to converse in a second language is pretty common throughout the world, but it's not here," said Paul Losch, a Walter Hays Elementary School parent. Losch is part of a committee of 12 Walter Hays teachers and parents working to bring a foreign language program to that school.

"Kids at this age are much more capable of learning and absorbing a language," he said.

At the district-wide level, two different groups have also been working on the idea and find it promising. Last week, both groups presented reports to the Palo Alto school board outlining different ways to start such a language program.

One group, United Supporters of Early Foreign Language (USEFL), would like to see the district move quickly to offer an immersion program at two or more elementary schools for those parents who want a program taught almost completely in a foreign language. That group was formed last year by a group of parents, Stanford education professors, and foreign language education experts.

Another group, the Elementary Foreign Language Task Force, is more cautious, and suggests leaving the decision up to the board and each school's site council. The task force is a group of teachers and parents convened by the school district.

Both groups spent months gathering research and observing classrooms throughout the United States and Canada. Some classrooms, as close as San Francisco and even Portola Valley, have students conversing completely in a foreign language for most of their school day, or have a traveling teacher who visits daily giving them a few minutes of exposure a day.

"I'd be really happy with the kind that's 15-30 minutes a day. That would be better than nothing," said Kate Feinstein, the parent of a fifth grader at Walter Hays. "That's what I wanted for my daughter, some exposure to it."

Said Kathryn Lindholm, a Nixon school parent who served on both committees: "The task force places a high priority on every student becoming proficient in a foreign language. A fundamental element of our vision is choice for parents."

Losch, the Walter Hays parent who also served on this committee, feels strongly that parents should have more choice. Walter Hays hopes to come up with a decision by February on implementing either an immersion or an alternative foreign language program. The school currently offers an after-school Spanish program. Only Duveneck and Addison now offer some foreign language instruction during the school day.

"It would be really nice if they could have it during the day," Feinstein said, but it means a tradeoff of another program unless more staff is added.

In its report to the school board, the USEFL group urged that foreign language instruction be accorded `core' status in public education. "Acquisition of meaningful second language skills need not detract from achievement in other subject areas," the group says. "There are no impenetrable barriers to the PAUSD providing a superior K-12 foreign language instruction program."

The other committee, the Elementary Foreign Language Task Force, analyzed costs as well as different options. While total immersion would be the biggest curricular change, the group said it would be the least costly option because the district could use bilingual teachers already employed by the district. The only cost would be setting up a classroom, which in any scenario, costs an estimated $6,000.

For partial immersion, usually 50 percent of a school day, the cost would be for teacher training and instructional materials. The most expensive would probably be the program where students would get about 30 minutes of foreign language a day.

The actual amount would depend on the number of teachers who would need to be hired. One teacher working 60 percent time and traveling among schools could cost an estimated $30,000.

Key problems that would need to be resolved are cost, continuity with middle school language programs and equity, to make sure all students have equal access to a program if it is only offered at selected schools.

"There needs to be some equity of access," agreed school board member Julie Jerome. "If we have a pilot (at one school), we're still going to have to figure a way to `spread the wealth,' figuratively."

To fit a foreign language program into a school day, most schools would have to eliminate something else. "It means a commitment of resources," said Feinstein, who chaired a Walter Hays committee last year that decided to put off the idea. "It would certainly mean some reshuffling of class assignments."

If the board chooses the non-immersion option, the Elementary Foreign Language Task Force recommended that the school board choose Spanish, since it could be more easily carried over to middle school, and there are more Spanish teachers available. For other programs, the group recommended choosing from languages currently offered in middle and high schools. The task force also recommended phasing in a traveling program over five years, starting with first grade and adding one each year.

The school board is expected to take up this issue again at a later date.

--Elizabeth Darling 

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