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Foreign language proficiency in demand

When it comes to learning languages, earlier is better. So why don't more elementary schools offer classes?

By SUSIE WOODHAMS Times Correspondent
Published September 7, 2007


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Every now and then, U.S. Postal Service worker Karen Fisher gets frustrated when she can't answer a customer's question in the best possible way.

It's not that Fisher doesn't know the answer. She just can't say it in Spanish to customers.

"I don't think they understand me, and I don't know the words to ask them in Spanish," said Fisher, who doesn't remember much more than the Spanish numbers she learned in middle school.

Days like that make Fisher grateful that her son, Duncan, has already had five years of Spanish at Buckhorn Elementary School in Valrico.

"If he learns it at a younger age, maybe he'll retain it better than I did," she said.

But while research indicates children learn a second language more easily when it's introduced before age 10, few elementary schools in Hillsborough County offer foreign language training.

Other than magnet schools, Buckhorn, Kingswood in Brandon and Walden Lake in Plant City are the district's only elementary schools that teach a foreign language to all their students. West Tampa's Alexander Elementary, which is 84 percent Hispanic, is the only school to offer a dual-language program. Alexander students are taught language arts and math in English and learn science, social studies and art in Spanish.

Yet district officials say there is a demand for foreign language. That's one reason Plant City's Lincoln Elementary was converted from a magnet school focusing on technology and computers to an International Baccalaureate program similar to Tampa's MacFarlane Park Elementary School for International Studies.

At the start of this school year, residents who live east of U.S. 301 who applied and were chosen by the district's lottery system for an IB elementary education attend the Plant City school. Like most others, Lincoln is teaching Spanish. Philip Shore Performing Arts Magnet School in Ybor City is the only one that offers Italian.

"I think parents are interested in as much exposure as possible in foreign language, and they're looking to more than the two-year requirement at the high school level," said Melissa Morgado, the district's supervisor of world languages. "The universities are expecting and somewhat demanding more than two years, and the business community realizes it takes more than two years to be proficient in a foreign language."

While most middle schools offer foreign language as an elective, limited budgets and class time have kept the district from teaching it at all elementary schools. Those that do either got a grant or were chosen as pilot programs.

And having a child learn a foreign language outside of the public system is costly. Most private schools teach Spanish at least twice a week, but tuition can run $3,000 to $13,000 a year. At Brandon Academy, which already offers Spanish, the second-grade teacher gives free weekly lessons in her native German to an after-school club.

Tampa-based Language Playhouse is another option for younger children. Using an immersion concept in which no English is spoken, the school offers 90-minute classes in Spanish, French, German and Chinese once a week for $85 to $95 a month to children 3 through 9. The classes usually meet after school or on Saturdays, and summer camps are available.

Other than that, the best options are to apply to a magnet school or transfer to one of the four traditional schools that offer Spanish. The district's next online enrollment period for the 2008-2009 school year is during the first two weeks of December and first two weeks of January and, traditionally, most spots are filled during that time. Paper applications can be submitted anytime beginning the first week of December.

While Buckhorn, Kingswood and Walden Lake each have a Spanish teacher who meets with classes as much as once a week, the programs focus on cultures of Hispanic countries as much as introducing basic grammar and vocabulary. Alexander is the closest the district has to an immersion program, although students are graded on content rather than how well they speak. Eighteen of its 131 participating students come from outside school boundaries, while about one-fourth do not come from Spanish-speaking families.

To show parents the program's progress after two years, Alexander staged Dual Language Celebration in May with students singing in Spanish to a mariachi band and performing Latin dances. They also celebrated FCAT scores, with the third-grade dual language reading scores and the fourth-grade dual language class scoring the highest among their peers at the school.

"We look at this program as literacy enhancement," said Alexander principal Manuel Duran. "It could be in Italian, French or something else in the Latin group. But when you're learning another language, you're improving your vocabulary, and these kids are doing exceptionally well."

[Last modified September 6, 2007, 07:19:11]


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