Philadelphia suburbs say Adieu to language programs

Now some Philadelphia suburbs’ elementary schools are saying goodbye to their foreign language programs. Already fewer than 10 of the 64 Philadelphia school districts teach foreign languages in the primary grades.  Here’s the full story by Dan Hardy, “Grade Schools Consider Cutting Foreign Language Classes” April 12, 2010:

Students in Madame Maria Wells’ fifth-grade class at Cynwyd Elementary School were having great fun Thursday morning – while learning French at the same time.

Through songs, games, and discussion, mostly in French, Wells taught anatomy vocabulary words to the Lower Merion district children, now in their fourth year of instruction.

The class, which meets three days a week, also talked about English words that have their origins in French terms.

“The connections between French and those words helps me remember them and know what they mean,” student Benjamin Nagle said.

“It’s great to be able to speak French,” said classmate Belle LeBow.

Not many public school elementary children in Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs get that experience.

Fewer than 10 of the 64 districts teach foreign language in the primary grades. Some programs are very limited, with only a few minutes a week or only a few grades.

Now, more districts are getting ready to say au revoir to those classes. Tredyffrin/Easttown; Springfield, Delaware County; and Great Valley are tentatively planning to drop them next year.

The Unionville Chadds-Ford district had intended to start a full program in its grade schools this year. But the recession forced it to shelve the plan in favor of one that uses teachers and parent volunteers a few times a month. Three districts – Haverford, Wallingford-Swarthmore, and West Chester – eliminated elementary language classes in the last few years.

Few contest the key role elementary education can have in foreign-language proficiency. Classes in lower grades are vital to achieving good pronunciation and fluency by the end of high school, experts say. Studies show that foreign-language instruction correlates with increased English language ability and general academic performance.

But nationally, the percentage of schools with elementary level language programs fell from 24 in 1997 to 15 in 2008, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington-based nonprofit.

Pennsylvania officials do not have an exact count, but said the number of districts with some kind of elementary language instruction is holding fairly steady at between 150 and 175.

For area high schools, The Inquirer’s Report Card on the Schools, released Sunday, found that nine suburban districts dropped one or more languages and six others added them since 2007-08. In Philadelphia, about half a dozen high schools dropped at least one language and about the same number added one.

New Jersey is one of only 19 states that has a foreign language high school graduation requirement; Pennsylvania does not. New Jersey also requires that every elementary school teach foreign language.

The three Pennsylvania districts proposing to cut their elementary programs all cited the same reasons: time and money. Tredyffrin/Easttown, Springfield, and Great Valley officials said that it was impossible to spend enough time on them to make it worthwhile, and they could realize savings by starting the instruction in the higher grades.

In the Tredyffrin/Easttown school district in Chester County, the elementary language program, started in 1998, has been a signature program. “We believe that learning a foreign language in the elementary school is an essential part of a child’s education and development,” the district’s Web site says.

But the program – with 45 minutes of class time for first through fourth graders twice every six days – is likely to be cut. “If we want proficiency, we would have to increase instruction, and we don’t feel we could do that at this time,” said curriculum director Richard Gusick, citing competing demands from other subjects.

The district will beef up its program in grades five to 12, Gusick added, saying that “language proficiency remains a goal.”

Another factor for the proposed cuts is a $9.25 million budget deficit the district faces for next school year. Dropping the program would save $378,000, he said.

That proposal brought hundreds of parents out to board meetings; more than 600 signed an online petition asking that the program be spared.

One was Tredyffrin resident Cristina McLachlan, the mother of three elementary schoolchildren and a Spanish teacher at a private school.

“Everybody is trying to become more global and countless studies have showed that the earlier children are exposed to a foreign language, the easier it is for them to learn it,” she said. “When you go to Europe or South America, every educated person speaks two languages, or three or four – we’re the exception. . . . It’s a huge step backward in a school district that everyone considers to be so good – it’s absurd . . . it’s a mistake.”

In the Lower Merion District, support for the program remains strong, said Jack Maguire, supervisor of Humanities programs. “The educational benefits and the intellectual benefits for the kids are immense,” he said. “There is no need to justify this to the community – they understand the importance of this to their children’s education. . . . There’s never been a whisper that the program is in trouble.”

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