120716i-roundtables-bThe scores of family members who have pleaded for world language instruction in Cambridge elementary schools over at least the past five years would have been encouraged to hear a Tuesday presentation to the School Committee on how it might work. For the first time, under new Superintendent Kenneth Salim and the new assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Anda Adams, work has been done.

Though short of an actual proposal, concrete information on what a program in Cambridge might look like, including research data on programs in other communities, was presented by Adams. She and colleague MaryAnn MacDonald, assistant superintendent for education, additionally presented what Salim called “the many real challenges” to launching the program.

The impetus for the meeting was a March 1 motion to develop a model for implementation of a world language program “beginning in the 2016-17 school year,” with a presentation due by December of this year. This followed similar motions in 2013 and 2014 that were ignored by then superintendent Jeff Young.

Possible model

The team presented a program in which one language as yet unidentified is taught to all fourth-graders, with fifth- and then third-graders added in the two subsequent years. Administrators are weighing the options of two 45-minute instruction periods or three 30-minute periods per week.

At this point, Adams said, they are focusing on the three main challenges of identifying which language to teach, sufficient support for students and how to fit in instruction time. “We don’t want to get too bogged down on other impacts like staffing, budget and curriculum,” Adams said, “until we get the design worked out.”

Adams’ exploratory work has included consulting with national experts, such as the American Council for Teaching Foreign Language, and other Massachusetts district staff and families. At home, she and MacDonald have had initial talks with principals, curriculum coordinators and some families.

They have not, however, talked with Cambridge teachers yet, saying the exploration is not specific enough at this stage. Talking with the School Committee is key to putting a process in place for outreach and feedback, MacDonald said.

Adams laid out three possible goals: exposing students to multiple languages and cultures; exposing them to one world language and culture to build their capacity to learn languages; or developing language “proficiency.”

“We settled on thinking about exposing them to a language and culture as a foundation for doing more in the upper schools,” Adams said. Saying that research shows that it takes between 480 and 1,300 hours to become “proficient” in a foreign language – depending on which – Adams seemed to lay the groundwork for Cambridge choosing an easier language for English-speakers to learn, which she named as Spanish, Portuguese or French.

The challenges

One of the biggest challenges is getting 90 minutes of instruction into Cambridge’s 30-hour weeks. With the 2014-15 budget, Young, dragged his feet on addressing implementation and then ended further talk because, he said, it would be impossible without a longer day.

The tone of Tuesday’s presentation was different. Challenges were identified, but characterized as “not insurmountable.” Adams presented data on nine Massachusetts districts offering elementary world language where school days run from six hours and 10 minutes to six hours and 50 minutes. She focused on two districts, including Bedford, which has been running a foreign language program for grades three through five for 15 years. Until three years ago Bedford had six-hour days, now extended by 15 minutes.

Wellesley, where total school minutes per week is the same as in Cambridge, started a pilot program in two schools that has expanded to all kindergarten through second-grade students, and is marked to keep growing. In comparison with Cambridge, students in Wellesley elementary schools have Spanish instruction and spend more time on math, art and music (compared with Cambridge schools that don’t use the Kodaly program); the same amount of time on English and Literacy; and a bit less on science, social studies, morning meeting and physical education and health.

MacDonald said that the topic is a “sensitive” one with principals, with whom they have discussed this three times. “The principals realize that in order to implement any program they will have to reallocate time,” she said. “Right now people are focused on early grade reading levels,” she said, explaining possible resistance to adding language study.

Committee discussion

Member Patty Nolan, who said she was excited to hear the work being done on the issue, raised research saying learning a foreign language can help develop literacy skills in a native language. “I’m not sure it has to be perceived as a tradeoff.”

Member Emily Dexter agreed. “Why did none of this come up when we added Kodaly?” she asked, referring to a music program added over time to many Cambridge elementary schools, and which includes 75 additional minutes of music instruction per week. Research on the positive impact on literacy and learning from Kodaly and foreign language is similar.

“It wasn’t easy for Kodaly. That’s why it’s not implemented in all schools,” MacDonald said, although no one yet addressed how the program was added to schools without a policy discussion similar to the one surrounding language instruction. The “challenges” of staff training, curriculum development, issues surrounding part-time staff, student transitions and time on other subjects are the same.

Dexter and member Manikka Bowman urged that the research focus on districts that, like Cambridge, are more heterogeneous in culture, race and income. Nolan, wondering why they chose to start with fourth-graders, was reminded third-graders are dealing with state standardized testing and will have a new science curriculum next year. Nolan also later expressed concerned that the proposed program does not include kindergarten through second grade.

Richard Harding, who with Kathleen Kelly wrote the motion to create a program, seemed now lukewarm to the idea. “I appreciate you taking a stab at it,” he said. “But I don’t like it. I would like to see the end goal be worth it. For me, that’s fluency.” Adams explained that the end goal for students can be fluency if they follow through in upper school and high school.

“I don’t want to be negative,” Harding said, but said the initiative was another that may not improve the achievement gap and that they may “have missed the opportunity” for adding foreign language when staff voted down a contract in June 2013 that included a longer school day. “If we had said we were going to use if for a specific thing, I think we could have gotten a longer day,” he said.

Bowman also suggested the day may need to be longer. “If we put this program in and it’s not moving the needle on the achievement gap, we need to have a conversation on extending the school day,” she said.

“I’m concerned about us starting with talking about the achievement gap every time we start an initiative,” Kelly said. “This is an opportunity gap. That may be even more important than the achievement gap. They both exist.”

Vice chairman Fred Fantini, who was leading the discussion in Mayor E. Denise Simmons’ absence, summed up: “We are trying to find a sweet spot between implementing a world language program and supporting our principals who have a sense they are struggling to do the job they have now,” he said. “If there’s any time to think out of the box, this is the time,” suggesting that maybe they should “start small” with three elementary schools that feed into one upper school as a pilot.

Next steps include more outreach to staff, families and students; enough identification of next year’s budget needs “to feel comfortable moving forward,” Salim said; followed by development of curriculum and staff needs, as well as schedule and space planning.

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