Nanci Hutson in ctpost.com, August 31, 2013:
In the first week of school, Schools Superintendent Anthony Bivona went back to kindergarten and first grade.
And he learned a couple new words — in Spanish.
For the first year, Center Elementary’s 500 or so kindergarten and first-graders are learning a foreign language.
Brookfield hired Mikki Durkin as its first early language teacher, and her schedule is to teach each class three times a week for a 15-minute period. Bivona said he was impressed with Durkin’s enthusiasm and ability to grasp the children’s attention right away.
“What I witnessed was an introductory lesson of greetings to students — “hola” and “buenos dias” — and I saw how excited they were. Just the excitement in the classes and the expressions on their faces was amazing to watch,” Bivona said.
Brookfield is one of the few traditional public school districts in the Western Connecticut region to expand world languages to the kindergarten level. It is one of 10 in the state.
First-grader Sienna Katz, the youngest daughter of multilingual school board member Victor Katz, came home from her first day at Center able to speak seven different words, including her name. On the second day, she came home singing a song in Spanish.
“At that age, they absorb it like a sponge,” said Katz, who emigrated to the United States from the Ukraine in 1992 and works as a software engineer for an international company, where he is called upon to speak a variety of languages.
An outspoken advocate for expanding the district’s foreign language program, Katz said the benefit is unquestionable, with many studies showing proof that academic performance of children is advanced by early language learning.
The National Network of Early Language Learning suggests that all elementary school students have access to high quality world language instruction because it is the best time to learn.
Acquiring those early literacy and cognitive skills helps youngsters with standardized tests, teaches them positive attitudes toward different cultures and makes it easier to acquire broader language skills later in life, the network says.
Brookfield’s strategic plan as far back as 2005 identified the need to expand world language opportunities, and two years ago the district widened its offerings from starting at seventh grade to fifth grade.
In 2012, Brookfield’s school board hired Glastonbury Director of Foreign Languages Rita Oleksak. For decades, Glastonbury has had a model world language program including. She urged Brookfield administrators to expand elementary Spanish to kindergarten, introduce Mandarin Chinese in seventh grade and establish multimedia language labs.
“Learning a foreign language is an integral component to educating 21st century citizens to become productive members of our global society,” Oleksak wrote in a letter to the district. “Their study of a foreign language develops language and communication skills, cultural knowledge as well as critical 21st century skills that students need to be successful in the future.”
As a child growing up in a multi-language family, Katz said he often started a sentence in one language only to then finish in another.
“The brain gets wired in a different way,” Katz said of children who learn languages at an early age.
Not a luxury
For the last eight years in Danbury, students from across the region have attended the kindergarten through fifth-grade Western Connecticut Academy for International Studies’ magnet school, where the study of world cultures included teaching Spanish in kindergarten.
“It’s so exciting that they (Brookfield educators) are putting that into the program,” said Helena Nitowski, the academy’s tri-lingual principal.
Nitowski said her school has offered the early elementary language program since it opened as part of a broader theme of international and global studies.
“The understanding of customs and cultures is more exhilarated when you can speak the language,” Nitowski said.
Bivona is quick to say his administration’s push to broaden and expand the world language program is rooted in the reality of the 21st century as a global society. And he praises the community for backing the program financially.
Although the $150,000 to add Mandarin Chinese as a third language at the middle and high school levels was not funded, Bivona said the commitment to an expanded world language program is a priority for the school district. So the approximately $100,000 to extend world language to kindergarten and first-grade was approved.
In the coming budget season, Bivona said, he will seek the money needed to complete the elementary sequence to second, third and fourth grades. He, too, will again be pitching Mandarin Chinese, a world language that many high schools across the state and nation consider essential for a full-fledged languages program.
“The community is aware of the importance of having a global perspective in education, and how linked we are with other cultures,” Bivona said.
No longer do Americans only do business within the boundaries of their home communities or nation, he noted.
“We are working internationally, and companies and businesses are looking for people who are bilingual … communication is key to education,” he said.
Bivona said a robust world language curriculum is not just a luxury.
“I can’t place enough emphasis on the fact that we’re living in a global society. Our students need to learn the traditions and customs and broaden our perspective beyond the borders of Brookfield. To me, that is really important. I cannot stress that enough,” he said.