November 7, 2002

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School board wants input from local residents—
Schools to study foreign languages

What sort of foreign language instruction does the Yellow Springs community want for its children? At what age should children begin language study? And how can a small school system provide students with more options in its foreign language curriculum on a limited budget?

The Yellow Springs Board of Education considered these questions at its Oct. 24 Committee of the Whole meeting, which focused solely on the foreign language program at Yellow Springs High School. Prompting the discussion was a request by YSHS Principal John Gudgel to reactivate the Foreign Language Committee, a group of teachers, board members, administrators, students and villagers who in the past have acted as overseers of the school’s foreign language program.

Those at the meeting, including board members, foreign language teachers, a parent and a foreign exchange student, agreed on the value of learning a foreign language and the need to examine the current foreign language program.

“I’m very happy that we’re going to look at the program,” said YSHS Spanish teacher Kathy Burkland. “There are so many things we need to look at and prioritize.”

Currently in Yellow Springs public schools, foreign language instruction begins in high school, where the school offers two languages, Spanish and French, said Gudgel. In the past German had also been offered, but had been cut due to declining enrollment, he said.

Most students take a foreign language, said Gudgel. About 120 students study Spanish and 50 to 75 take French. The majority take one or two years of a language, and two years are required for college admission, said YSHS guidance counselor and French teacher Dave Smith.

Students who want to learn a different language sometimes choose to study Japanese with Antioch College Professor Harold Wright, said Smith. “There are not many options for other languages,” he said.

No language instruction is currently offered in the middle school or elementary school levels, said Gudgel. At one time, the middle school offered a class that provided cultural exposure to a variety of countries but did not teach a language. The program was eliminated a few years ago partly due to a lack of available periods in a schedule filled with classes required by the state.

Ideally, young people would be introduced to a foreign language in elementary school, said Burkland. She said her “dream” is that the Yellow Springs program would begin in fifth grade, when a child has a facility for learning a language more easily.

Serhiy Fesyun, a foreign exchange student from the Ukraine studying at YSHS this year, said children in his country begin studying language in elementary school, sometimes as early as kindergarten.

The Yellow Springs public schools don’t offer foreign languages earlier because of the district’s limited resources, said Superintendent Tony Armocida.

“Our program is the way it is because we have two languages, which splits our resources,” said Armocida. “If we had only one foreign language, we could start in middle school. Is it important to the community to have multiple languages offered?”

Limited resources also affects how many advanced classes the high school can offer, Burkland said. While students may take four years of French at YSHS, they can only take three years of Spanish, due to the large numbers of freshmen and sophomores studying Spanish. Consequently, she said, some of her most dedicated students are “abandoned” in their senior year, when they want to continue their study of Spanish.

Not having a fourth-year Spanish class was a “terrible loss” to his daughter, said Tucker Malishenko, whose daughter, Myra, graduated from YSHS last year and is currently an exchange student in Costa Rica. Learning Spanish was a “transformative” experience for Myra, said Malishenko. He said that when Myra returned from a school-sponsored trip to Mexico, she “came back with a passion, with her eyes open and a different view of the world.”

While Burkland said she attempted to meet informally with Myra and four other seniors last year to continue their study, the busyness of the students lives made it difficult for them to show up on a regular basis. “It doesn’t work when it’s a club. We need to reward the students who apply themselves by offering the opportunities they deserve,” she said.

To allow her time in the school day to teach fourth-level Spanish, Burkland suggested limiting the number of freshmen allowed to take first-level Spanish, perhaps by using a lottery system.

All who attended the meeting said they were frustrated that the district is not able to offer more language study to Yellow Springs students.

Several years ago, the school board considered offering foreign language courses in middle school, but decided against it due to the school system’s limited resources and the lack of available time in the schedule, said board member Bill Firestone.

“Given those constraints, what can we do with what we have?” he asked. “How can we make a richer experience for students without more money and more time?”

The board will soon announce a new Foreign Language Committee structure and committee charge, said Board president Rich Bullock.

The board also needs guidance from the Yellow Springs community as to how to prioritize its language program, Armocida and several board members said.

“I’d like to find out how the community feels. Does it want to scale down to one language or to keep two?” said board member Angela Wright. “We need to get the community engaged in this conversation.”

—Diane Chiddister