World Language program feeling growing pains

ASHWAUBENON — Listen closely and you can hear ominous rumblings about World Language, even as the final piece of the puzzle — sixth-grade implementation — is about to fall into place.

Five years ago the Ashwaubenon School District launched an ambitious plan to allow students to take German or Spanish from their first day in kindergarten to their final day in high school. Ashwaubenon gradually added elementary grades to the program, and on Monday the district board will consider several scenarios for expanding it into sixth grade.

Creating and maintaining the hallmark program, however, is becoming a test of time and money.

The World Language program this school year is expected to cost the district $436,177 — 44 percent more than projected in 1996-1997 when the program started. And efforts to accommodate the program in sixth grade could lead to cuts of as much as 50 percent in the time students spend in other classes, like band or chorus, and an increase of $10,000 to $50,000 in costs.”I understand the reasoning, and I know that we need to make accommodations. But I’m afraid we’re hurting our whole music program,” said Karen Gille, co-president of the Ashwaubenon Band Parents Association, who is concerned about possible changes to music.

World Language also has its supporters.

“I don’t want to pit one program against another, but I’m a firm believer that this will open as many doors as band,” said Linda Peterson, whose daughter Andrea is a fourth-grade Spanish student at Valley View Elementary School. “I understand their (band parents’) concerns. But our society is multicultural. Why not give every student the opportunity to experience cultural diversity?”

Innovative program

You don’t hear anyone saying World Language is a bad concept. After all, Northeastern Wisconsin is becoming more diverse.

The most recent U.S. Census Bureau numbers show the increasing diversity within Brown County. The 2000 census found that the county’s Hispanic population increased 470 percent, to 8,698, during the 1990s. The African-American population grew 161 percent during the decade to 2,641, and the Asian population doubled to 4,935.

And as more students grow up to go beyond this snowy corner of the country, a second language can open the door to opportunity.

“I love German,” said Steven Coleman, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Pioneer Elementary School. “When you take a foreign language, it’s kind of a bond to somewhere else in the world.”

Under the most drastic scenario being considered Monday, the time set aside for band or chorus would be sliced in half from 260 minutes to 130 minutes per week. Not only would students have less classroom training for band or chorus, but music teachers’ hours also would be trimmed to make room for additional foreign language instruction.

But it’s not just the music program that is feeling the time crunch.

Tough decisions

Teachers, who now find themselves judged on the basis of standardized test scores, fret about every lost minute of instruction time. So much so that when students at the elementary schools pass from one class to another they are instructed to walk side by side because single-file lines take longer.

Principals Marlene Eagan and Linda Hering at Valley View and Pioneer schools respectively said they support World Language but they also hear from classroom teachers who beg for additional time to teach core subjects like science, math and social studies.

It’s one of those “big picture” issues that school administrators find themselves addressing.

“There are several purposes that were initiated from the inception,” said district director of learning Sue Alberti. “One was to have our students be literate regarding another culture. Also, if students would stay with the same language throughout their K-12 experience, at the end they would be bilingual.”

Pioneer Elementary German teacher Francine Cook said it makes sense to teach a foreign language to younger children because they can process information the best.

Students who master a second language also develop more confidence and gain a self-esteem boost, Cook said.

In the World Language program’s first year, kindergarten students at Cormier will learn Spanish or German, depending on the elementary school that they will attend. German is offered at Pioneer. Spanish is the language for Valley View.

“The biggest mistake was that we had a lot of excitement, but didn’t have as well thought out a plan as we should have,” is the candid assessment of the World Language program from Ashwaubenon Superintendent Jim Stillman.

“I’m being honest. There were people who got caught up and very excited, and that’s what drove them. We didn’t do as good a job as we should have at long-term planning. We talked about the intrinsic values but we didn’t really come up with a good evaluation plan,” Stillman said.

Defends program

Alberti doesn’t disagree with Stillman, but she defends the work of a school district committee that took three years to plan the program.

“Five years ago none of us in education knew what impact educational standards were going to bring — state and now federal testing,” she said. “We’ve had our course carved out for us. In the past what would have been a great learning opportunity and enrichment program, we’ve had to take a second look at. We’re looking through a different financial lens, accountability lens, cultural lens.”

Parkview Middle School Principal Rae Bennett has the task of seeing the transition of World Language into the middle school curriculum.

An Ashwaubenon graduate and former Fulbright Scholar who taught German in the Washington, D.C., area, Bennett and her husband are raising their sons to be bilingual, speaking only German at home.

Numerous studies show that the best time to introduce children to a second language is when they are young, she said. She said she believes World Language will be a program that will distinguish the school district.

Ongoing review

Even with the addition of the sixth-grade program, that won’t end the review of the World Language program. The World Language Task Force is expected to continue looking at ways to keep costs in check. The task force is composed of School Board members, administrators, faculty and parents.

“We’re going to ask: ‘Are there some ways that we can realize some cost savings not just in one grade or in one building, but by taking a look at the whole program? Can we maybe take a thin layer off the whole thing?'” Alberti said.

Among other issues that will be addressed:

* Languages are determined by the elementary school — Spanish at Valley View and German at Pioneer. When should a student be allowed to switch languages?

* How does a student new to the district catch up with accelerated classmates?

* As World Language students move up in grade, language programs will have to be modified to accommodate their level of fluency. How will that be done?

Despite all of the complications, neither Stillman nor Alberti are ready to pull the plug on World Language.

“I still get excited when I see these kids participating,” Stillman said. “They have excitement for this that they don’t have in some other things we have in school. When you see that exuberance, that to me is an indicator that it has some value.”

The scenarios

World Language will be on the agenda when the Ashwaubenon School District meets at 6:30 p.m. Monday in district headquarters, 1055 Griffiths Lane.

The School Board is expected to receive a pair of proposals from the World Language Task Force for sixth-grade implementation.

One scenario proposes paring in half the music hours to accommodate world language. The music staff would be proportionally cut to allow for the addition of Spanish and German teachers. Cost for that plan: $10,000.

Another scenario calls for a less drastic reduction in music hours and staff. That plan would cost about $50,000.

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