ACSU panel backs second language for young pupils

MIDDLEBURY — Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) schools should try to offer second-language instruction for all children in grades kindergarten through 7, according to a committee report, provided officials can hash out current transportation and class scheduling obstacles.
That is the conclusion of study recently completed by the ACSU K-12 Second Language Study Committee.” The ACSU board in September charged the ad hoc panel with looking at the feasibility of offering a second-language program for district students who currently don’t have access to such teaching.
Most students in the seven-town ACSU currently do not receive second-language instruction until grade 8, though Weybridge Elementary currently operates a successful Spanish program. Officials at Mary Hogan Elementary in Middlebury have been also been exploring the prospect of offering a second language. The ACSU includes elementary schools in Bridport, Cornwall, Salisbury, Shoreham, Middlebury, Ripton and Weybridge, along with Middlebury Union Middle and High schools.
“The impetus for this whole study came from the school boards,” noted ACSU Associate Superintendent Jan Willey, a member of the language study committee.
A combined total of approximately 300 ACSU students are enrolled in second-language courses in French, Spanish and Latin in any given year, according to district officials. But since the vast majority of those students aren’t exposed to the classes until secondary school, it sets them back for future study, according to the report.
“The late start in second language requires much more practice in high school before fluency is achieved,” the report states.
Providing language instruction at the elementary level, committee members reasoned, would allow students to achieve decent proficiency by grade 8 and likely allow the ACSU to do without the fifth level of instruction currently offered at MUHS.
While committee members said implementing an ACSU-wide language program makes perfect sense, there are some obstacles — including transportation and the uneven school day schedules at the elementary schools. The length of the school day ranges from six hours, 10 minutes at Mary Hogan Elementary to 7.5 hours at Ripton Elementary. School officials will need to find a way to either squeeze a language course into the current set schedule, supplant a course, or negotiate with teachers for an extension of the workday.
“It is possible that slight modifications to the existing teaching day could yield some spare time for second language instruction, but this committee believes that, in most cases, additional instructional time will be necessary,” the language committee report reads. “This would have an impact on busing and teacher contracts.”
Some additional language teachers would also be needed, the report acknowledges, while an additional bus route would cost approximately $31,000.
The report, according to Willey, can serve as a “catalyst to force the (school) boards to look at the issue of the length of school day. It is crazy right now that some of our kids get an hour and a half more instruction a day than other kids.
“It is a matter of huge inequity that exists right now.”
Committee members agree that second language instruction should be available for all students and not simply offered as an after-school activity.
Plans now call for the individual school boards in the ACSU to discuss the study committee’s report and its implications for their respective operations. And Willey said “the stars are somewhat aligned” for making some progress on expanding language instruction. She noted the current teachers’ and transportation contracts will both be up for negotiation later this year.
“Transportation and length of school day have always been reasons for our not doing something,” Willey said. “I am really excited that the (ACSU) board is going to take on length of school day.”
The study committee laid out a potential schedule for phasing in second language instruction in all ACSU schools by the 2013-2014 academic year. The program would be refined and improved, with the addition of an on-line component, by 2017-2018, according to the report.
ID-4 board Chairwoman Karen Lefkoe said she was impressed with the study committee’s report, though it’s too soon to tell how its recommendations will play out at the Mary Hogan school.
“I think each school will have to decide for itself, based on finances and the school day,” Lefkoe said.
“The question (for Mary Hogan school) may be what we are willing to give up to get a second language.”
At this point, Lefkoe believes it would be difficult for Mary Hogan to establish a language program by next school year. All of the ACSU schools are finalizing 2012-2013 budgets.
Among them is Weybridge Elementary, where school directors are proposing a budget that is 14.55-percent lower than the current spending plan to reflect declining enrollment. Those cuts, however, do not include Spanish instruction, now in its third year at the school.
“Kids are completely engaged; it’s a very engaging class,” Willey said. “And the entire Weybridge school has become much more globally aware, and all the staff have bought into (the Spanish program) and are supporting it.”
Weybridge school board Chairman Eben Punderson confirmed Willey’s comments.
“The Spanish program is working really well,” he said.
Willey is hopeful that the language study committee’s recommendations get some traction.
“If we have the will to take this on, we can make it happen,” Willey said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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