Palo Alto (Calif.): Foreign language in schools needs translation

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Sep 27 16:03:49 UTC 2007

Uploaded: Tuesday, September 25, 2007, 11:49 PM

Foreign language in schools needs translation
School board asks planning committee to define better it goals and scope

by Arden Pennell
Palo Alto Online Staff

Foreign language in elementary schools (FLES) is a good idea that
needs more definition, Palo Alto's Board of Education told district
representatives Tuesday night.
Board members asked representatives of the FLES committee, who
presented plans for an implementation study to be completed in spring,
for a concrete statement of the hypothetical program's goals and
scope. "What does proficiency mean?" board member Mandy Lowell asked.

"Would students in later grades be able to take art or PE in a second
language?" board member Barb Mitchell asked. The FLES committee should
clearly define its aims and present them to the board in November -- a
month earlier than previously announced -- Superintendent Kevin Skelly
suggested. The board and FLES Committee representatives (Associate
Superintendent Marilyn Cook and Director of Elementary Education Becki
Cohn-Vargas) agreed.

The board passed a resolution to look at implementing languages in
elementary schools district-wide last January. The plan presented by
Cook Tuesday suggested possible members of the FLES Committee --
including parents, whom Cook said she will recruit starting this week
-- and outlined the committee's research plan. The study will be
finished by next spring, in time to include it in discussions about a
new strategic plan for the district, Cook said.

The planned implementation study brought before the board for guidance
and will proceed with board input. Community members speaking at the
meeting seconded the board's call for clearly defined goals. "There's
a tremendous gap between language exposure and proficiency," said Wynn
Hausser, one of six candidates for a school board seat in November's
election. He encouraged the committee to consider middle-ground goals,
such as preparing students to learn a language more quickly in high
school. Duveneck parent Catherine Crystal Foster echoed his concern,
saying that community members have varying hopes for such a program.
"Some students only want to be better prepared for high-school
language classes," while some want to learn multiple languages, she

"We need to have clearly articulated goals to avoid dividing a
community that has different expectations," she said. The board and
community were also uncertain whether a new language program would be
required of all students. The FLES study proposal suggested using the
existing district policy as a guideline. But the current policy is
confusing -- while there is no foreign language requirement for
graduation, many colleges require applicants to have completed a
minimum number of semesters.

Both Skelly and board member Gail Price said the policy was outdated
and not a good guideline. In addition, because the current policy
treats language as an elective, the board needs to decide whether FLES
will part of the required core curriculum, said Melissa Baten Caswell,
another school board candidate in the current election.  The program
will be de facto exclusionary even if it is mandatory, said community
member Betsy Allyn, former director of a school for children with
learning disabilities.

"You will probably have 10 to 15 percent of children in this school
district who can't participate because they are dyslexic or have
language-acquisition problems," she said.
Lowell wanted to know if there would be exemptions for students who
already speak a second language fluently. After hearing board and
community feedback, Skelly suggested that FLES representatives clarify
the potential goals of a FLES program and report back to the board
earlier than planned in November.

Meanwhile, the committee will begin work by selecting its members,
including a handful of qualified parents. Applications will be sent
out this week and the selections will be made by Monday, Cook said.
Price asked how candidates would be judged. "I know we have parents in
this community who have double or triple Ph.D.s in world-language
instruction," she said. Skelly, who will be on the team selecting
applicants, emphasized attitude over academic credentials. "We're
looking for folks that can be appropriate jurors … and are flexible in
their thinking," he said.

Committee-member responsibilities will include semi-weekly meetings
and several hours of reading in between, Cook predicted. The committee
will analyze several options for foreign language and present a spring
recommendation that offers "the most bang for the buck," she said.

In other business, the board:


• Discussed whether to accept a federal Foreign Language Assistance
Program grant of about $198,000 to support the future
Mandarin-immersion program and current high-school Mandarin
instruction. The funds would make Mandarin-immersion cost-neutral by
covering start-up costs, which the district could match the grant with
money already budgeted for high school Mandarin instruction.  The
funds would also help improve technology within high-school Mandarin
classrooms, Cook said. The board will vote on whether or not to accept
the grant at its next meeting Oct. 9.

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