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Votes

No New Foreign Languages For Arlington

School Board members wanted school staff to recommend offering Arabic and Chinese.

The Arlington school staff did not propose adding any new languages to the 2006-07 curriculum last week, drawing the ire of several board members who were hoping to begin offering Chinese or Arabic courses next fall.

School officials said they were still sampling student interest and would report back to the board in January. If there is sufficient demand to sustain courses in either language, the staff could bring a recommendation to the board early next year and, if approved, students would be able to register for them in time for the next school year, said Mark A. Johnston, assistant superintendent for instruction.

The school staff recommended a secondary film studies class be added at Wakefield and Yorktown high schools and suggested an International Baccelaureate business and management class be removed from the Washington-Lee curriculum.

School board member Elaine S. Furlow and Chairman David M. Foster, who have been forceful proponents of diversifying the foreign languages offered in Arlington’s public schools, expressed dismay that the staff did not present a plan for implementing the two languages.

“I’m personally disappointed not to see [Chinese and Arabic] courses included in the proposed changes but I appreciate that staff will continue working on the matter,” said Foster, who requested in July that the school staff begin to gauge student interest in the two languages.

It is imperative that Arlington students have the opportunity to develop expertise in two languages that are crucial for both national security and economic reasons, Foster said.

Arlington’s foreign language program does not reflect the new realities of global politics and it is essential that the school system adapt in order to continue giving students a competitive advantage, Furlow said.

“We offer many European languages, which reflects a view of the past hundred years,” Furlow said. “That is not the world of today. Why can’t Arlington be a leader in this area?”

In a time of declining enrollment, and the accompanying decrease in the school system’s budget, some have questioned whether adding new languages and hiring new teachers is the best utilization of school funds.

The school staff is surveying students enrolled in level I and level III foreign language courses to measure their interest in studying languages not currently offered. If a low percentage of students indicate they would like to take Arabic or Chinese, the school staff would be unwilling to recommend the board devote money and resources to these classes, Johnston said.

“If only 10 or 12 students are interested do we place a value on that course over others?” Johnston asked the board. “Is another foreign language class more important than an AP course?”

The difficulty of learning Chinese or Arabic, compared to Spanish or French, means that though many students might be interested in taking those classes, they may not enroll in them once they consider the time commitment required, Johnston said.

SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS retorted that one narrow survey should not be the determining factor and the staff should also consider the views of parents and school administrators.

“You have to take a risk when you start something new,” Foster said. “If we offer it they will come.”

An October 2003 study conducted by the school system’s foreign language advisory committee found that of languages not currently taught in Arlington schools 14 percent of parents would most like to see Arabic implemented and 12 percent listed Chinese. Twenty percent chose Italian, 14 percent said Japanese and 18 percent believed that no new languages needed to be added to the program of study. The survey did not allow parents to say if they wanted more than one new course to be taught.

Furlow believes the school staff should not wait for a groundswell of support to “magically appear.” Instead, by offering Arabic and Chinese the schools will ignite interest in students and parents, she said.

School officials said they were concerned it would be difficult to find certified teachers in the two languages. Though there are an abundance of qualified Arabic and Chinese speakers in the community, few of them are accredited to teach in Virginia public schools.

To overcome this problem the schools could employ teachers on a part-time basis, in which case they do not have to be certified, Foster said.

In a report to Superintendent Robert G. Smith, school officials wrote that they were exploring dual-enrollment options with NOVA and George Mason University. In the past the school system has arraigned for students to study Russian and Portuguese at area colleges. The school staff is also considering online courses if there is not enough student demand to begin formal classes.

The school system’s foreign language advisory committee recommend this year the establishment of after-school enrichment programs in Chinese and Arabic in two elementary and two secondary schools.

“The schools should fund language clubs and look to see if there is enough student interest to have regular classes,” said Karen Audant, who chairs the committee.

The school staff rejected the committee’s proposals in part because of concerns of the availability of qualified teachers and not wanting to add additional after-school programs. Teachers told the committee that the difficulty of Arabic and Chinese required an extensive period of study that was not feasible in an after-school setting.