California: Palo Alto school language plan may cost too much

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jan 17 14:18:42 UTC 2008

PA school language plan may cost too much  Study group's
much-anticipated results suggest proficiency program start in
third-grade -- but board troubled by price

by Arden Pennell
Palo Alto Online Staff

A detailed new plan to start teaching foreign languages in elementary
schools may be too expensive for Palo Alto, school board members told
a study group Tuesday night. The board greeted long-awaited findings
from the Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES) committee with
enthusiasm, yet hesitated over the estimated $1.1 million per year
price tag. The committee recommended beginning foreign-language
classes in third grade and aiming for proficiency rather than mere
exposure, a goal that would require hiring a traveling team of eight
specialists and a program supervisor. The findings were presented for
discussion and required no board vote, but will be included in
long-term Strategic Plan discussion in the spring, board members said.

The committee of parents, teachers, principals and district staff was
formed following a board promise last winter to examine languages for
all students in the wake of debate about the Mandarin-immersion
program starting this August. The group's findings came after months
of studying educational research and programs used in districts deemed
similar to Palo Alto by a benchmarking study, Associate Superintendent
Marilyn Cook said. The group decided aiming for proficiency in
languages was preferable to mere exposure because exposure programs
lack concrete expectations for student achievement, she said. The best
bang for the district's buck would be to begin a program in third
grade, once students can already read and write in English, she said.

Students can then transfer literacy skills to learning a second
language, a more cost-effective option than starting a program in
kindergarten before students can learn a second language thoroughly,
she said. "You could spend twice as much and do it in kindergarten ...
but there's not a lot of proficiency attained," she said. The school
day would need to be lengthened by an average of 15 minutes per day to
accommodate two 30- to 40-minute language classes a week, she said.
Such a program would also require the district to re-map its language
offerings from third through 12th grade -- a particularly tricky task
for sixth grade, where the curriculum rotates courses on an
introductory "wheel," she said.

Students would enter high school about a year farther ahead in studies
than they currently do, she said, noting higher-level courses would
need to be introduced. And an estimated $800,000 would be required to
pay a traveling team of eight foreign-language  Specialists, along
with $150,000 for a program supervisor and $150,000 for materials,
training and program evaluation, according to the group's report. The
total $1.1 million cost was unrealistic, board member Camille Townsend
said. "It looks like we've boxed ourselves again into not being able
to ever do a FLES program," she said, and asked if the group had
looked at less expensive options.

The district could look at cheaper programs that integrate language
into pre-existing classes, such as the gym-and-Spanish class offered
in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, she said. But
"when you're first learning the language, it's very hard to learn
content in another subject area because you don't have the level of
language to do it," FLES committee member Becki Cohn-Vargas, who is
also director of elememtary education, cautioned. Board member Melissa
Baten Caswell also tried to chip away at the daunting cost, asking if
the study group looked at television-based or online learning. But
even a colorful television show needs a knowledgeable -- and salaried
-- teacher to make the lessons interactive for students, group members

"If you don't have a teacher there who speaks the language then the
students just get it one way," Anne Jensen, a French teacher and
instructional supervisor at Gunn High School, said. Cost concerns
should not make the program a binary, yes-or-no choice, Superintendent
Kevin Skelly said. Different options could be considered during
strategic planning, he said, adding he hoped to see an online aspect
that would allow kids to work at their own pace. Other concerns about
the proposed program included pacing and inclusiveness for all

Student Board member Kairen Wong asked whether students who come to
the district after third grade would have trouble catching up with
lessons. Many incoming students already have second-language exposure,
and even those who didn't could participate in oral-based instruction
and catch up quickly, Cook said. Community members said students in
special education could be left behind by the fast clip of a
proficiency program.  While the plan assumes third-graders are
literate enough to move on to a second language, many students in
special education haven't mastered basic English literacy, parent
Daunna Minnich said. Ten to 15 percent of students are in special
education, with more still in the English-language learners program,
said Pauline Navarro, a member of the Community Advisory Committee for
Special Education.

Students in special education would "do what's appropriate" depending
on their individualized education plan, Cook said.

Despite complications, community support for a foreign language
program is high, with 55 or 58 e-mails to the committee in favor of
the idea, Cook said.

Yet adding a language program may be least appealing to those who
would deal with it most -- students and teachers.

The program ranked last out of 11 priorities in a spring 2006 survey
of parents, staff and students conducted by Gene Bregman and
Associates, behind reading, math and writing specialists, among other

When only parents were surveyed, it jumped up to the fourth priority,
according to the committee's report.

In other actions, the board:

• Heard that local effects of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed
$4.4 billion reductions to state education funding will be minimal
this year but significant in 2008-09, according to Chief Business
Officers Cathy Mak and Bob Golton, who attended an informational
seminar in Sacramento Tuesday morning.

Mak said the cuts should not affect Palo Alto much this year, but next
year the cuts could mean a loss of $809,000 to the district's General
Fund. The cuts would include $237,000 from special education and
$606,000 from categorical programs such as secondary-school
counseling, textbooks and the gifted-education program, she said.

But their full effect will be unknown until later in the year after
legislators begin responding to the governor's proposals in February,
she said.

"Essentially, this is going to take a long time, a long, long time,"
Golton said, noting lawmakers will continue revising the budget policy
for months.

He will be able to advise the board how to deal with cuts later in the
winter, he said.

• Heard a district plan to meet elementary-school growth, including
building two new portable classrooms at Ohlone and one at Fairmeadow
at a first-year cost of $690,000.

The Ohlone portables will house the upcoming Mandarin-immersion
program but would be built elsewhere to accommodate growth even
without the language program, Chief Business Officer Bob Golton said.

A music and a science classroom at Escondido will each become
mainstream classrooms, he said.

Board Vice President Barb Mitchell praised the district's efforts to
find space, noting "three new portables is about half what we ordered
last year."

The board is scheduled to vote on the plan Jan. 29.

• Heard that an independent financial audit for 2006-07 uncovered no
fiscal violations, according to Leonard Danna of auditing firm
Vavrinek, Trine, Day & Co.

"It's a clean report," he said, noting only about 25 percent of
districts report such spotless audits.

• Approved a suggestion from Skelly to update board policies. The
current foreign-language policy was written in 1993 and is outdated,
and other policies need a gueneral update and overhaul, Skelly said.

He proposed district staff tackle the unwieldy task of overhauling
policies and presenting suggestions to the board in spring.

"Let me come back in March or April as we do some staff work around
how we would eat this elephant," he said.

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