Spanish language program under threat of reduction

City Schools of Decatur considers fewer instruction hours

City Schools of Decatur considers fewer instruction hours

Despite serving as a reference for education professionals, opposition from parents and concern from board members, City Schools of Decatur (CSD) may proceed with reducing its Foreign Language in Elementary Schools (FLES) program in grades K-3.

“You have such a spotlight in your Spanish program,” said Georgia State University researcher Paula Garrett-Rucks. “When I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, we studied [City Schools of Decatur]. This program dispelled myths that ‘unintelligent’ people couldn’t learn foreign languages. The idea of cutting a program designed for 150 minutes to 90 minutes—[students] are not going to be able to maintain what they learn from that curriculum.”

The CSD board of education discussed the program—which focuses on Spanish—with parents, district officials and principals on April 11. Discussion stemmed from a recent proposal to cut the program from 120 minutes to 90 minutes per week beginning in the 2017-2018 school year. CSD last cut its FLES program—established in 1998—from 150 minutes to 120 minutes in 2009.

CSD parents joined Garrett-Rucks in voicing opposition to the potential decision.

Emory professor and CSD parent Tonio Andrade called CSD’s FLES program the jewel of the district and brought a petition from more than 250 other parents. Portions of the letter voiced opposition and requested CSD leadership explore options to maintain the program under its current model.

Andrade was joined by other parents, who called the FLES program a precursor to CSD’s International Baccalaureates program that focuses on foreign language.

According to Rochelle Lofstrand, principal at Westchester Elementary, and other K-3 leaders, CSD’s shifting priorities, schools’ short school days and lack of funding have made incorporating the district’s 120-minute-per-week requirement difficult.

Lofstrand said the current FLES program will call for three additional staff members for the 2017-2018 school year and cost the district $250,000. She said it will also require six additional Spanish teachers that will cost approximately $500,000.

Lofstrand also said the six-and-a-half-hour day is not enough time to also include, in addition to CSD’s FLES program, 60 minutes per week for art, physical education and music; one hour each for reading, writing and math each day; 30 minutes of phonics instruction; 30 minutes for lunch; 20 minutes for recess; and 90 minutes for science, social studies and special programs.

“We all understand the importance of students learning a foreign language in elementary school and we vehemently support FLES program as innovative and best practices,” Lofstrand said. “However, we also have strategic objectives in reading and math that we are held accountable for achieving and there’s a need to reduce the amount of time students receive Spanish instruction to 90 minutes a week.”

According to Lofstrand, such strategic objectives include CSD’s aid to dyslexic students through Orton-Gillingham-based instruction. Karen Newton principal of 4/5 Academy at Fifth Avenue also mentioned the district’s fight to end racial disproportionality in student success.

“We have to do something different,” Newton said. “If kids can’t read or do basic math, to me, that’s the highest priority.”

CSD superintendent David Dude said district officials kept 90 minutes of Spanish instruction to ensure the program maintains its high quality.

“There’s a difference between going from 120 minutes to 90 minutes and going from 120 minutes to zero minutes,” Dude said. “We are absolutely committed to that 90 minutes and making sure we don’t go below that. This is not a decision that was made lightly.”

Dude said there is no real way to measure the FLES program’s success or effectiveness under the current model, but also stated the district would look into gauging such measures in the upcoming year—after the possible reduction.

Dude said the board could look into investing funds and an extended school day should those successes be found to be indispensable.

Board member Lewis Jones lauded CSD’s current FLES program, stating one of his children is fluent in Spanish and was in Cuba at the time of the meeting because of the district’s program.

“Our Spanish program is a real leader—it’s one of the things I’m most proud about our school system,” Jones said. “It opens doors in ways many other things that we do don’t. It’s an opportunity that’s missed if we don’t deliver it. This is not something we want lost in the shuffle. Consistency and exposure to [Spanish] makes a big difference and there’s a level you can lower that exposure to where it won’t stick.”

Board chairman Annie Caiola suggested looking into accommodating the program through budget or the school day before making final decisions, based on Spanish aiding CSD’s mission of building global citizens.

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