"Strong," "innovative," "creative" -- as well as "disjointed," "not supported" and "gaps" -- are all words Palo Alto teachers chose to describe the school district's K-12 world-language programs.
They gave these descriptors during focus group interviews that the Hanover Research Group conducted in May as part of a comprehensive evaluation commissioned by the district earlier this year of the school district's world-language offerings.
The interviews, released this week in the first of several reports due from Hanover, paint a picture of a system with both successes and failures: High-quality instruction and teachers are in high demand and are fostering clear student success -- yet they operate within a disjointed system hindered by poor communication and lack of alignment across grade levels.
Hanover held the focus groups with groups of Gunn and Palo Alto high school world-language teachers; English and Mandarin-immersion teachers from Ohlone Elementary School; English and Spanish-immersion teachers from Escondido Elementary School; and parents and community members.
Three main questions were explored: how Palo Alto Unified's language immersion programs are perceived and demanded in comparison to more traditional language instruction; what might be the most appropriate and effective way to facilitate world-language programs across the district; and if and how the district should expand its language offerings, particularly at the elementary school level.
The responses all illustrate a need for the district to better coordinate its world-language programs and also lend support to the long-debated proposal of bringing foreign-language instruction to Palo Alto's elementary schools.
Elementary and high school teachers attributed the lack of alignment to the absence of a full-time, high-level administrator with world-language expertise and experience to set a clear, unified vision for the district's language programs.
Earlier this year, it was announced that Chuck Merritt, principal of El Carmelo Elementary School, would become the district's world-languages administrator, a new position covering pre-K through high school. He will continue as an elementary school principal as well, though he's moving to Escondido, which houses the district's longtime Spanish-immersion program. Merritt does have a world-language background: He has taught high school Spanish in Fremont and Palo Alto; English as a foreign language at the middle school level in Madrid, Spain; and recently, Languages Other Than English (LOTE) teaching methods for Fresno Pacific University, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Merritt will be working with the district's world-language steering committee to coordinate curriculum, instruction and assessment at all five middle and high schools and the Mandarin- and Spanish-immersion programs at Escondido and Ohlone. He wrote in an email last week that he will also be putting together a proposal for the board to consider increasing world-language opportunities for elementary students.
Focus group participants highlighted the current gap in middle school world languages as "the most pressing articulation issue, especially for immersion students," Hanover's report states. The groups strongly recommended that the district consider adding more language classes at the middle schools, especially to support immersion students, before expanding at the elementary schools.
"The district has not addressed how to bridge the immersion programs and the secondary programs," Marilyn Cook, former Palo Alto associate superintendent and chair of the district's foreign language in elementary school (FLES) committee in 2007-08, said in a separate set of "stakeholder interviews" conducted by Hanover. "That's, from my perspective, a burning issue."
After pleas from Ohlone parents this year to bridge the middle school gap, the Board of Education approved in February a pilot Mandarin-immersion program to start at Jordan Middle School this fall. Despite the victory for those parents, it's a class rather than true immersion. Ohlone students coming from an environment in which they were taught core subjects like math and science in Mandarin will get one hour of language instruction four days a week.
"Even if it's only one hour four days a week, it has to be an intense program that starts the children where they're already at in the language and doesn't recreate something that's happened before," Stanford Graduate School of Education professor and language researcher Amado Padilla said in an interview with the Weekly. Padilla has been studying the Ohlone program since its inception in 2008 and recently released a study comparing Mandarin-immersion students' proficiency to that of high school students taking high-level AP courses.
"These kids are highly literate for their age group in Mandarin. The program needs to start from where they are at if they want to really build continuity and be a successful bridge program," Padilla added.
The Ohlone graduates heading to Jordan will also be in class with native speakers who were not in the immersion program but took a test and were selected to fill the pilot class. Twenty students have enrolled in the Jordan program as of last week, according to Director of Secondary Education Katherine Baker.
The Mandarin pilot is modeled after the district's Spanish "immersion" middle school program, which is also housed at Jordan. It will begin with one section for sixth-graders this fall and increase over the next two years (one section each for sixth- and seventh-graders in the 2016-17 year and one section at all three grade levels in the 2017-18 year) as long as there is enough enrollment.
Prior to the creation of the new pilot program, Mandarin students coming out of Ohlone and native speakers interested in taking the language at their middle schools could access limited classes through the sixth-grade "exploratory wheel" -- six-week introductory instruction in subjects students might want to choose as electives in seventh and eighth grades -- and then, in said elective classes. This will still be the case at JLS and Terman middle schools, but there are problems, the Hanover report states.
"Students cannot always access their immersion language at their respective middle school," the report notes. "Moreover, these courses must also cater to non-immersion students who are beginning a new language, which in turn, create large disparities in student ability within classes."
Students' language skills can also suffer as a result, parents and teachers reported.
"Just one year without a language, such as during Grade 6, can set an immersion student far back in his/her language acquisition," one high school teacher said.
Parents said the middle school gap also creates a pressure to compensate by enrolling their children in private after-school and weekend language programs. Cook also noted in her interview with Hanover that many Palo Alto families don't depend on the district or push for further language instruction because there are so many private options in the area. They range from private immersion schools like the International School of the Peninsula and HeadsUp!, which offers Montessori curriculum in Mandarin and English from preschool through eighth grade, to after-school and weekend programs such as the Palo Alto Chinese School (which meets Friday nights at JLS Middle School), the Stanford Chinese School (which meets Saturdays at Gunn High) and the Mustard Seed Learning Center on East Bayshore Road. Cornerstone Learning Foundation on Manuela Avenue offers Mandarin immersion for kindergarteners and 3- to 4-year-olds as well as an after-school program, Friday night programming for middle and high schoolers and a six-week immersion summer camp.
The disjointed school district system and myriad private options mean a huge range of language skills can converge in high school classes, particularly at the entry levels, making it difficult for teachers to "provide the individualized instruction necessary to effectively teach a language," the report notes. Both Gunn and Paly offer several levels of Mandarin, Spanish, German, French and Japanese. Paly also offers American Sign Language.
"The current K-12 world language model allows for situations in which a single high school language class may contain students who have completed an immersion program but did not test into upper level or AP language classes and students who have just started to learn a language," the report states.
As students get to high school, classes are also increasingly driven by AP curriculum and academic language learning rather than fluency, teachers said.
Teachers "fear that the greatest benefits of world-language instruction (i.e. cultural exposure, communication skills, the ability to break from other subject areas) are being overshadowed by a test-centric mission," the report states.
Gunn and Paly teachers said there is rarely communication among the elementary, middle school and high school teachers, suggesting that this "exacerbates the lack of articulation across grades." They said smaller classes, more co-teaching and ensuring that teacher aides speak their class' language could also help improve and tailor instruction.
The district commissioned the Hanover study in part to determine whether or not to expand its world-language offerings, particularly at the elementary school level. This issue has been on Palo Alto's table for years, particularly since a committee dedicated to studying the issue recommended in 2008 that the district begin foreign-language classes in third grade. Ultimately, the annual $1.1 million price tag to pay for a team of traveling language teachers, a program supervisor, materials, training and program evaluation proved too expensive, particularly during a challenging economic time.
A foreign language in elementary school (FLES) model aims to whet students' appetite early on by providing approximately 90 to 135 minutes of instruction each week. It serves a very different purpose from immersion, which raises the question of what the district's broader world-language vision should be: academic language learning or fluency and cultural knowledge?
The benefits of language immersion were recently illustrated in the new Stanford Graduate School of Education study that found fourth- and fifth-graders from Ohlone's Mandarin immersion program graduated with linguistic competency comparable to that of Paly and Gunn students completing the fourth- and fifth- level AP Mandarin courses. Some of the elementary school students even outperformed the high schoolers in reading, the researchers found.
Though high school teachers participating in the Hanover focus groups said immersion students, in their experience, are more articulate, confident, willing to take risks in class and able to demonstrate greater cultural competency, they also noted that immersion-style education in elementary school is not appropriate for all students.
Padilla, also a former Palo Alto school board member who oversaw the creation of the district's Spanish-immersion program, said in a June press release announcing the results of the Ohlone comparative study that he hopes the new data "can be used as a tool for planning, implementing and sustaining well-articulated sequential language programs that begin in the early grades and continue throughout students' K-12 learning experience."
School board members Terry Godfrey, who served on the district's FLES committee in 2007 and 2008, and Ken Dauber both revived the issue during their election campaigns in the fall. Both have repeatedly mentioned it as a priority, particularly in light of the district being in much better financial shape than in 2008.
Camille Townsend, a strong supporter of the Mandarin-immersion program throughout the controversial six years it took to get approved, said in an interview she's willing to be an "active partner" in getting FLES going, but needs parents and community members to help champion the cause. (This was certainly true in the case of Mandarin immersion, where one parent in particular, Grace Mah, lead the charge for many years, lobbying the school board and enlisting other parents' support.)
"I'm very supportive of exploring this further, but it helps when you have very committed community members to the idea," she said. "You need that help."
Superintendent Max McGee said in an interview Tuesday that while he's a strong proponent of early world-language education, the district has much more work to do before considering FLES as either a requirement or option. (Most of the focus group participants opposed making it a requirement.)
Prior to coming to Palo Alto, McGee founded an international high school made up of equal numbers of American and Chinese students, traveled to Singapore this year with Palo Alto high schoolers and can frequently be heard talking about "preparing students for careers that don't exist" in a globally connected future.
He oversaw the addition of a FLES program to the Wilmette School District in Illinois, where he served as superintendent for four years. Foreign language was added as a required class at Wilmette's four elementary schools, with 90 minutes of instruction and a longer school day.
Opposition to FLES in Palo Alto has historically centered on cost and feasibility, with concern about what students might lose if foreign language is added to the regular school day. Focus group participants argued against adding FLES as a requirement, citing scheduling and teacher recruiting challenges, political concerns and "other potential adverse outcomes."
Though the focus groups indicated strong support for starting world-language instruction as early as possible, in kindergarten, "Consensus suggests that existing programs should be strengthened before any expansion takes place," the report states.
McGee said he thought this sentiment was "right on target."
"The study pointed out that there is not one way or one right way to do this," he said. "First of all, do a better job of what you're doing now, attend to the needs at the middle school and then look to expand thoughtfully and carefully."
Hanover also completed an in-depth evaluation of the Spanish-immersion program. A report on Mandarin immersion is forthcoming. All of the reports will be presented to the school board when it reconvenes in August.