Darien, Connecticut’s Foreign Language Programs

By David DesRoches for DarienTimes.com, January 5, 2012:

What started with a study in 2007 finally became a reality — albeit a tentative one.
The long delay in bringing foreign languages to the elementary schools ended this month when the Board of Education passed a $320,000 program with a 6-1 vote. But it remains to be seen if the new initiative will make the Spring budget cuts.

Last year, parents showed up wearing red shirts to multiple meetings to support languages, but the program was axed during the first round of cuts.

A common reason for putting off foreign languages has been the economy, although an argument could be made that delaying this program has helped the economy.

Several immersion-based language programs have been started in town, including LinguaKids which opened in 1999, Franc-O Fun opened in 2009, and this year Playdate’s Maureen Bloom and parent Karen Christiansen partnered to create a Spanish immersion program for two-year olds. The First Congregational Church has had a preschool Spanish program for years.

And business has been good for many of these programs. LinguaKids’ business grew from 33 kids at its beginning in Darien, to hundreds of kids at 20 elementary schools in Fairfield and Westchester counties.

Picking up on the demand for languages, the schools began an earnest search for a program in 2007. After three years of studies and discussions, a proposal came before the Board of Ed in 2010. Spearheaded by Christiansen, a mother of three, the program gained much town-wide backing. Christiansen herself gathered nearly 1,700 signatures in support of bringing languages to town.

But the proposal that came forward was a 45-minute class every six days. The board was torn over the concept, because it was agreed that languages were needed, but the program was shot down as it was seen as not rigorous enough for the cost. Only board members Jim Plutte and Susan Perticone voted in favor of the program last year.

The discussions did, however, open the door for this year’s proposal. After last year’s vote-down, Falcone appeared optimistic about the ongoing conversation.

“It’s a disappointment but I’m also encouraged by what I felt was the support for the concept… and the encouragement to bring it back,” Falcone told the board last year.

This year’s program structure didn’t change the amount of class time, but it became a once-a-week program that would take the place of the library. It had everyone convinced except for board member Amy Bell, who expressed concern that approving the program without approving the money was irresponsible.

“Normally, we… vote on the concept of a new program as well as the funding — during the budget process,” Bell told the Board of Ed just before the vote was taken. “I worry that this separate vote that we are taking tonight will create an expectation in the community — an expectation that may not be fulfilled — because we don’t know what else is being proposed in the budget in January…”

Board Chairman Betsey Hagerty-Ross disagreed, and said they normally vote on a program prior to establishing the budget.

Assistant superintendent Dr. Judith Pandolfo said the program would take up 2.5% of total instructional time. “We’re trying to get as much as we can from the program without making it overwhelmingly expensive,” Pandolfo told the board.

Christiansen lamented the board’s decision. “I really feel like implementing such a weak program will only lead to the program being on the chopping block in short term as our budget continues to need cutting year after year,” Christiansen wrote in an e-mail.

But if the program survives the budget, it won’t necessarily stay the same over the years. Superintendent Dr. Stephen Falcone said the program is open to change, and the schools could “adjust things” as time progressed to better meet the needs of the students.

Christiansen moved to Darien from Glastonbury, which has had elementary foreign language studies since 1957, and she assumed Darien did too.

When she discovered that wasn’t the case, she thought it was inevitable that Darien would have a program by the time her children entered school. But when that didn’t happen, she said, she approached school officials who repeatedly told her the program was “on the table.”

“I began wondering what table it was on,” she said last year.

It’s still not clear whether the program will be implemented school-wide, or whether it will be phased in by grade level over two or three years. Five teachers will also need to be hired.

Pandolfo emphasized how the program was an “infusion into the whole school community.”

She said that while the 2.5% is the actual time spent on the language, total exposure would more likely be 5%, as the children would be exposed to Spanish throughout the school. “I think some of those are even more nurturing, because you’re applying the language in other settings,” Pandolfo said.

The program is not curriculum based, meaning the students won’t learn about topics that are covered in other classes, but will instead focus on culture and basic language learning. New Canaan, Greenwich, Westport and Weston are similar towns that already have a foreign language program at the elementary level.

For the past 30 years, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language has gathered data on the effectiveness of learning languages early. According to the Council, it enriches and enhances a child’s mental development, leaves students with more flexibility in thinking and greater sensitivity to language and capacity for listening, improves a child’s understanding of his or her native tongue, gives children the ability to communicate with people they otherwise would have never known, opens doors to other cultures, nurtures understanding and increases job opportunities for many careers.

In an increasingly globalized economy, skills such as these will be a growing demand, advocates say. Additional reporting by Jake Kara, Susan Shultz and Susan Chavez.

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