Foreign language curriculum expansion considered in Champaign

Foreign language curriculum expansion considered in Champaign

CHAMPAIGN – A group of Champaign teachers is studying how to expand the foreign language curriculum in the district, with the goal of establishing a K-12 language program.

The school district needs to sell its good points to compete with the area's private schools, said Stacy McAndrew, a Centennial Spanish teacher and content area chair for foreign language.

"We're competing against Next Generation and Countryside and St. Matthews," all of which have foreign language programs, McAndrew said. "For a lot of parents, foreign language is a big selling point. You don't have to leave Champaign to find an elementary program."

The Champaign district received a $25,000 competitive grant from the Illinois State Board of Education this summer to come up with a set of recommendations. Eight foreign language teachers are designing their ideal program, based on the best teaching practices for foreign language, and determining what it would take for the school district to put the program in place.

Their work came out of protests from teachers and parents last year after German and an exploratory language program were discontinued at the middle schools, and language instruction was reduced from two years to one at Jefferson Middle School. German instruction was restored this year.

The foreign language program at Jefferson Middle School was once a model for other school districts.

The group, with support from Franklin Middle School Principal Carol Stack and Deputy Superintendent Dorland Norris, is looking at what's working with other foreign language programs and how to build up the Champaign school district's language program again. They are planning visits to other schools in September and October, and working with the director of foreign language teacher education at the University of Illinois.

The difficulty is how to make time for foreign language when teachers also need time to provide additional help for students in reading and math, for testing and for enrichment programs.

"We're definitely walking a tightrope," said Peter Schmitt, a Spanish teacher at Centennial High School who is part of the planning group.

Language study can reinforce what is being taught in the core subject areas, McAndrew said.

"I think a lot of people, when they hear we want to go into elementary, their first thought is, 'What are we going to lose?'" she said. "Foreign language is not coming to replace art or music or any other elective. It's a way to enhance the core subjects."

For example, McAndrew said, students learning about the continents and oceans in social studies or animals in science can use those areas to learn vocabulary words or phrases in a language class.

McAndrew has been researching how to start a foreign language program at the elementary level, and the benefits for doing so. She said research shows that children exposed to a foreign language at a young age generally have higher standardized test scores than those who don't study a second language until high school.

Linda Smith Tabb, a French teacher at Centennial and a middle school parent, began studying her first foreign language – French – at age 7. She said the early start made a big difference for her, developing her skill for learning other languages. She went on to study six other languages.

"I think it's a real loss of opportunity we don't start children in elementary," Tabb said. "I've had people tell me my accent is very authentic. It's hard to get that when you're older."

The group is also looking at whether the district should add heritage language classes. Such classes are for students who are able to speak a second language, perhaps because it is spoken in their home, but who need help with grammar or writing skills in that language.

McAndrew said an increasing number of Hispanic and Korean students in the district might justify such classes.

"We're shooting for the moon and we hope we get it," Schmitt said. "We're realistic. It will have to be put in (place) in increments."

The goal for next year is to restore the exploratory course and two years of language instruction at all the middle schools. The group also wants to develop a five-year plan to phase foreign language instruction into the elementary schools.

The teachers plan to present their report to the school board in December.

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