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Bow School Board delays language program for early grades

After granting preliminary approval in December, the Bow School Board has decided it wants more time for administrators to develop a district-wide foreign language program that would include the elementary grades, rather than start it next fall.

The board voted, 3-2, last week against a proposal from Superintendent Dean Cascadden – supported by elementary school Principal Deborah Winings and middle school Principal Adam Osburn – to implement a world language program beginning in grades one through four and eventually expanding to grades five through 12.

The program would introduce younger students to Spanish through activities such as art, music and dance, as well as corresponding digitally with students abroad.

Though board members have discussed developing such a program for years, some of them felt the proposal needed more time to develop.

“It was not a down and out vote because it’s our intent to continue the discussion and eventually get this in place,” said board Chairman Robert Louf. “No one on the board wants to see this go.”

In December, the board approved funding for Winings to hire a full-time “world language” instructor for this coming school year. The teacher’s focus was to be on familiarizing students with the Spanish language and culture.

“It would have quite a bit of language but it would be taught through the arts,” Winings said. “Our goal was not the grammatical piece of it, but rather connecting students with communities in other countries, getting them to see that there is a bigger world out there.”

Questions abound

Bow Elementary School, which is projected to have 333 students next year in grades one through four, currently offers a set of core classes in math and reading and “specials” courses, which include art, music and physical education. Students enroll in two periods of each of the specials courses per week.

Due to budget cuts from enrollment declines, Winings will have to reduce those specials offerings next school year to one period per week. The plan was to fold world language into that rotation. (The reduction in the specials staff, a loss of three part-time positions, is not related to the approved funding for the world language instructor, Winings said.)

But when Winings presented some of the details of her program to board members in February, there were questions. Would the program be integrated with the offerings at higher grade levels? Would it detract from the time students have for art, music and physical education? Board members asked Winings and Cascadden to think through the program more and get a sense of how parents and staff felt about it.

In a survey completed since the February presentation, about two-thirds of more than a hundred parents ranked world language as “Very Important” and “Important.”

Tracy Hahn-Burkett, whose daughter is a second-grader at the school and who was present at the meeting, said she supported foreign language instruction “as early as possible.”

“There are countless studies out there that show that learning language early improves not just learning of the language itself but also learning in other areas,” she said. “And this wasn’t just language but language and culture.”

Several teachers also supported the program, some expressing interest in developing their own language skills to help implement it, Winings said.

But there were still concerns that the program would bite further into arts and physical education classes.

After-school options

What Cascadden presented last week responded to some of the concerns. His vision was to roll out a comprehensive, district-wide language program over several years, beginning with the elementary school next year and expanding it into grades five and six the following year, grades seven and eight the year after that, and so on. To compensate for the program’s impact on the arts, the elementary school would begin offering an optional after-school enrichment period for students to make up some of the lost time.

The goal, Winings said, would be to spark curiosity for language in students early on, introduce them in middle school to grammar (in French, Spanish and Chinese) and offer them advanced study in the upper grade levels.

“I think when a student is exposed to a foreign language at an early age, they hear the language, they start to participate and they get excited about it,” Winings said, adding that the only costs to begin with would be hiring the teacher.

Too much, too soon?

But Louf, who voted against the proposal, said he thought things were moving too quickly.

“You’re talking about a major curriculum addition that has only got a few looks at this time,” he said. “In retrospect, I think what we should have done is vetted out the curriculum first, before we approved the additional teacher in December.”

Louf said he wasn’t yet sure what the expectations of the program were for elementary school students.

“How much more prepared will our fourth-graders be if they take the language program than if they hadn’t?” he asked.

There were pieces of the program Louf particularly liked, including its expansion into grades five through seven so that students entering upper grade levels would not only know what language they’d want to study but also have a firm footing in it.

Cascadden said another idea floating about, should the board one day approve the program, is to eventually expand the elementary and middle schools’ school days, to align them with the high school’s, which lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 2:50 p.m.

“It’s a possibility,” Louf said. “But we need to explore it more.”

Winings and Cascadden said they are still committed to getting the program off the ground and will work with the board to develop and better define the program.

Meanwhile, the money that had been allotted for the extra teacher will go back to taxpayers, Winings said.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319,
jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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