Hablar Espanol or no hablar Espanol?
That question will be on the minds of parents, teachers and administrators at the Southern Lehigh School District’s middle school auditorium tonight when Superintendent Paula Fantaski recommends whether foreign languages should be taught at the middle school.
Southern Lehigh is unusual in that it has no middle school foreign language program but beginning this year will graduate a class of fluent Spanish speakers from the fifth grade each June.
These kids come from Liberty Bell Elementary’s innovative but controversial Spanish immersion program that began in 1989. In this program, from the first moment of first grade, the regular classroom teacher speaks only Spanish. And in addition to gaining fluency, the students complete the school’s regular curriculum when they leave Liberty Bell.
The prospect of expanding the immersion program and offering foreign languages to all middle school students has polarized district parents and left board members with a difficult decision.
Supporters of foreign languages at the middle school say teaching other languages not only enhances cognitive skills and cultural appreciation but is becoming critical in the global economy.
“We want to see every student equipped for the 21st century. And just as this requires computer and technology skills, it also requires the ability to speak, read and write a foreign language,” said Cindy Sterrett, president of the district’s Advocates for Language Learning, in a March 24 press release.
Opponents say if the district is truly interested in producing bilingual high school graduates, foreign languages would be required for all students, from kindergarten through 12th grade.
They add that the vast majority of American students only take the minimum number of foreign language classes needed to get into college — and the high school already offers those classes.
“We know that most of the students now exit foreign language programs after two years of study,” said Robert Rothrock, the district’s foreign language department chairman, in a letter to the school board.
“This means that even though students will begin foreign language study earlier, they will end their study earlier. Therefore we see no dramatic increase in the student’s foreign language proficiency.”
Last year, the board formed a committee of teachers, parents and officials to examine the issue. On Feb. 28, the committee presented a report that offered several solutions but did not give the board a clear direction.
Fantaski won’t make any comments until tonight. And until Fantaski speaks, school board members are wary of taking a side. But they don’t hesitate to worry about the decision facing them in two weeks when they vote on the recommendation.
“It is written in stone that learning foreign languages is good,” said board President Harry Quigley. “But are languages our highest priority? If I had to choose between technical reading and writing and Spanish, I would pick technical reading and writing.”
Nearly everyone agrees that the Liberty Bell program is a success and should continue.
But concerning its expansion, Fantaski and board members are looking for a solution that will neither cost a lot of money nor detract from the programs for the majority of students. The committee offered three options in February:
*Ending the program at Grade 5.
*Hiring an additional Spanish immersion teacher who would teach one subject area in Grades 6-8.
*Hiring a Spanish immersion teacher to replace a sixth-grade teacher who would teach one subject area in Grade 6 and then allow participants to use club periods in Grades 7 and 8 to continue the program.
Of the three choices, only hiring an additional teacher would add to the district’s budget, the committee’s report says.
Immersion parents are worried that their children will lose fluency unless at least one immersion class is offered every day.
The biggest concern among officials and some non-immersion parents is not money but the chance that the entire middle school program will be disrupted. In the middle school, students are assigned to a team of teachers who work together and closely monitor the students’ progress.
The system is designed to increase the opportunity to coordinate curriculum and allow students more freedom in choosing their schedules.
Opponents say they are against disrupting this system in order to satisfy a small minority. Only 22 of the 180 students who will enter the sixth grade in the fall are enrolled in Liberty Bell’s immersion program.
“They are getting a private education at the taxpayers’ expense,” said Ann Mint, the parent of a middle-schooler.
In February, seven sixth-grade teachers wrote to the board that bringing Spanish immersion into the regular class schedule would “water down the team concept.”
Supporters of immersion consider those concerns unfounded. They say Southern Lehigh’s program “is the closest thing to a free lunch that you can get.”
“The extent of the disruption is greatly exaggerated. There are students with all kinds of special needs that are met every day within the existing schedule,” said John Schubert, who has a first-grader in Liberty Bell’s program.
“I have sensed that some parents feel jealous that they didn’t take advantage of the program.”
Former Southern Lehigh Superintendent Michael Green, who lobbied hard for immersion during his tenure, said that although it was never written, administrators and board members agreed five years ago to expand the program. They had even interviewed bilingual teachers, he said.
“Who did Clinton sign NAFTA with?” he asked, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement. “The board was very wise in their decision five years ago,” Green said.
“You keep this going through middle school and you have 125 kids who are fluent and don’t need a language at the high school. The district would be able to eliminate a foreign language teacher.”