Parents in Arlington, Virginia, Mobilize for Foreign Language Program at Elementary School

Jason Spenser in, April 2, 2013:

A group of Tuckahoe Elementary School parents is mobilizing in hopes of bringing foreign language instruction to their school.

The parents, who have gathered nearly 100 names on an online petition, are making the case that students who move from Tuckahoe to Swanson Middle School are suddenly surrounded by classmates who have had years of instruction. The inequity drives their argument.

“Foreign languages is a core subject in schools. You would never teach any other core subject the way that the world languages get taught now — half get math and half don’t, half get English and half don’t,” said Einar Olsen, who has a second- and fifth-grader at Tuckahoe.

“It’s a pretty poor situation. It’s sort of an educational malpractice situation, where half of the people are getting the attention and half are not.”

Nine Arlington elementary schools currently do not have the Foreign Language in Elementary Schools, or FLES, program. Adding a single school would cost $450,000, spokesman Frank Bellavia told Patch.

This is a tight budget year. Proposed cuts already would eliminate gifted services teachers at all three of the county’s high schools and consolidate the teen parenting program. And the school board already has asked the county government for an extra $3 million to help cover the costs of skyrocketing student enrollment.

“Regardless of the budget, it is an inequity at this point,” said Tuckahoe parent Kelly Alexis. “And that’s what we’re focused on. We cannot have children in the same school system, half having this program and half not; this cannot continue.”

She added: “Parents want to work collaboratively with Tuckahoe staff to make Tuckahoe a FLES success story.”


Parents have organized to contract two small foreign language programs at Tuckahoe — one French, one Spanish — that meet occasionally. Enrolling in one of those programs costs $550.

But, “Absent some financial commitment by the parents, there is no foreign language program at our elementary school,” said Rosemary Filou, who has two first-graders at Tuckahoe.

“These (other) schools have it and we don’t. And everyone knows in order for a child to gain proficiency in a language it’s important for the them to start as early as possible.”

Tuckahoe, Glebe, Key, McKinley, Arlington Science Focus and parts of Taylor, Ashlawn and Barrett feed students into Swanson Middle School.

Of those, Tuckahoe, Taylor and Arlington Science Focus do not have a Foreign Language in Elementary Schools program. The others do.

An adopted Arlington School Board value states, “All APS students should be proficient in at least two languages upon graduation and should have access to world language proficiency programs regardless of school of attendance.”

Who Benefits?

The issue has come up before. Kathy Mimberg, whose son is now in sixth grade at Swanson Middle after getting his early education at Tuckahoe, started working on it about six years ago.

Over the years, information forums have been held. Officials from the school system and neighboring schools have spoken to parents. Parents and teachers have been surveyed. The effort now, in some ways, is to revive the issue.

“What my family is facing now is what I had been concerned about,” Mimberg said. “My son is at Swanson, and we just did class schedule for next year. He’ll be taking Spanish for the first time ever. His peers, who went to Ashlawn, McKinley and Glebe, those schools all have FLES.”

She added: “Who does this benefit? Because he has not taken Spanish and they have.”

Students may choose to take a different language once they get to middle school, Bellavia told Patch in an email. “They may decide that they want to take Arabic or Chinese or something else instead of Spanish,” he said.

Superintendent Pat Murphy listed the expansion of the school system’s Foreign Language in Elementary Schools program as an “unfunded priority” in his budget — something that would be important to fund if dollars became available.

“This year we faced a $25 million shortfall, and there simply was no funding available to expanding the number of FLES schools. We do remain committed to the program, however, and anticipate that in the coming years, the program will be expanded,” Murphy’s chief of staff, Michael Korff, told Alexis in an email obtained by Patch.

The Arlington School Board will hold a work session on its proposed budget at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and a public hearing on the $520.4 million spending plan at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.


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