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Arlington to add Spanish as a mandatory class in two elementary schools.

Students at two Arlington elementary schools will be learning Spanish as part of the regular curriculum this fall, in a pilot program officials anticipate expanding to other schools in coming years.

Every student at Glebe and Patrick Henry elementary schools will take 90 minutes of Spanish a week this year, and the two schools are eliminating early release on Wednesdays to provide the extra instructional time.

This past spring, the School Board set aside more than $300,000 to pay for three full-time Spanish instructors, plus two assistants, to teach at two county elementary schools; Glebe and Patrick Henry were the only two schools to apply.

School officials believe that by placing Spanish courses in the mandatory curriculum they are helping students become proficient in a foreign language at an early age. They also hope this will give them a better appreciation of a culture that is becoming increasingly prevalent in the county.

"We live in a very diverse area where Spanish is spoken all over the place," said Glebe Principal Jamie Borg. "It’s such a benefit to have it under their belts at such a young age."

Over the past year the School Board has sought to bolster and diversify the foreign language offerings in Arlington’s schools. In addition to the elementary school pilot program, the School Board approved after-school Arabic and Chinese courses taught by Northern Virginia Community College facility for middle and high school students.

"We can see that we are becoming increasingly connected to the broader world through our trading and other opportunities," said School Board member Ed Fendley, who works at the State Department. These programs "will serve students well in providing professional opportunities," he added.

School officials see a multitude of benefits to introducing foreign languages in elementary schools. First, they are easier to learn at a young age and better prepare students to tackle additional languages when they get to middle and high school, Fendley said.

Learning a new language should also boost academic performance in other areas, school officials contend. A recent study by the Center for Applied Linguistics found that studying a second language while young hones complex thinking and increase sensory skills, a school report on foreign language stated.

"There are cognitive benefits to exposing them at a young age and they feel better about themselves," said Lisa Piehota, principal at Patrick Henry.

There will also be more tangible advantages to all students knowing at least rudimentary Spanish. Forty percent of Patrick Henry students are Hispanic, and for a good number of them English is their second language.

"This can link students to each other and the community, and also facilitate opportunities with businesses," Piehota said.

Parents and school officials said that Hispanic students will also take away much from the Spanish courses. That’s because while they may speak the language fluently, some have never been taught proper grammar or become skilled in reading, said Patrick Henry PTA President Santya Lanman.

The downside to implementing Spanish courses into the curriculum is that the two schools are forced to abandon early release on Wednesday afternoons.

Some parents complained about the elimination of early release because they used those afternoons to spend time with their children or schedule extra-curricular activities. But the majority of parents at the two schools have been supportive of the administration’s decision, Lanman said.

Teachers used the uninterrupted Wednesday afternoon block for meetings and staff planning periods, but will now have to make time during the regular school hours for those purposes.

Originally, school staff members thought the best way to bring foreign languages into elementary schools was through after-school programs, so they wouldn’t conflict with instructional requirements. Last year Glebe was the only Arlington school to try such a program, and the results were mixed, school officials said.

Parents expressed concern that an additional course after a full day of school was too taxing for 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds. It also forced students to choose between taking the Spanish course and other after-school lessons, such as for dance and music.

"Having it after-school made for a really long day," said Borg, the Glebe principal. "When it was January and they were leaving in the dark, we said ‘this is too much.’"

School staff and other principals will be carefully watching how the pilot program does in Glebe and Patrick this year, and will then decide whether to launch Spanish courses in other schools.

"People appreciate the opportunity to research and study this, and are willing to see how it goes," said Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent for instruction.

At least one School Board member is ready to green light an expansion.

"My own view is that I’d like to provide every elementary school student with the opportunity to learn a language in addition to English," Fendley said. "This is a first step."