Atlanta Public Schools Make Changes to Foreign Language Offerings

Jaime Sarrio for

Until this year, Spanish was the only foreign language offered to students at South Atlanta High. Middle school students studying French at Bunche couldn’t take that language when they entered high school at Therrell. And Latin was only offered at Grady High.

Atlanta Public Schools is introducing changes this fall to its foreign language program to address these issues and more. The district has one of the most comprehensive foreign language programs in the state, but as in many systems, access to different languages varies from school to school.

Atlanta school officials say they can’t address every inconsistency, but they are trying to give students access to more languages, and more higher-level courses.

To do that, elementary instruction will be reduced from 150 to 90 minutes a week. The reduced class time will free up teachers, who will be reassigned to middle and high schools, where services will be expanded.

The changes will allow the district to increase the number of middle schools offering yearlong languages and to increase the course options at high schools. Students will be able to continue taking the same language as they move through their “cluster” of elementary, middle and high school.

With these changes, Atlanta is trying to give students in every part of the city the opportunity to study a language in-depth, said Anita Lawrence, world languages coordinator for the district.

“Our goal is for students to complete courses with a level of proficiency that will allow them to put on a resume ‘I’m bilingual,’ as opposed to ‘I’ve had exposure to another language,’ ” she said.

In Georgia, foreign language is not a requirement to graduate from high school, but colleges do require it for admission. All high schools in the state offer at least two years of one language, said Jon Valentine, program manager for languages and global initiatives with the state Department of Education. In recent years, Georgia has seen a large increase in students taking a foreign language, and it exceeds the national average for the number of students enrolled in foreign-language courses.

“What we’re hearing from the business community is this piece makes all the difference when folks are applying for jobs,” he said. “They want candidates with a global perspective, people who can solve problems on international teams.”

Most metro districts offer a few languages in high school, but options at the elementary and middle school levels vary. In Gwinnett, the state’s largest system, the decision whether to offer foreign language in the early grades is left to the local school based on staffing and the interests of students and parents, said a district spokesman. Clayton County is home to one of the state’s few immersion schools, Unidos Dual Language Charter, where elementary students learn half the day in English and half in Spanish.

Atlanta is the only school system in the state to offer foreign language instruction at every elementary school. Middle schools and high schools offer world language studies as well.

But some elementary schools offer instruction starting in first grade, while others don’t begin until fourth grade, which won’t change under the new program. Some middle schools offer languages as shorter “exploratory” courses, while others offer it year round. And some high schools have one or two languages while North Atlanta has four.

Atlanta parent Sarah Peek said her son mastered Latin while a student at Woodward Academy. But when he left the private school to attend Mays High, he couldn’t continue his studies and instead had to take Spanish.

“I think they are limiting children’s growth and development completely,” Peek said. “All APS schools are not equal, unfortunately.”



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