This fall Arlington middle school and high school students will be able to enroll in Arabic and Mandarin Chinese courses, and earn college credits, if the School Board approves a proposal it is set to vote on next week.
The school staff is recommending the two languages be taught in a countywide after-school program, to be held at a Northern Virginia Community College facility in Arlington and conducted by the college’s professors.
Following a survey of student interest in new foreign languages, school officials determined that the demand for these courses was too low for them to be offered in any one school and that a single countywide program would be more practical.
In order not to have to transport students during school hours, or interfere with after-school sports and other activities, school officials suggest the courses be offered in the late afternoon.
“We don’t seem to have enough students interested at any one school to run this as a traditional program,” said Mark Johnston, assistant superintendent for instruction. “This way it is available to anyone who wants it.”
Though school board members said they were pleased to see a proposal put forward, several expressed dismay that the courses would be offered off-site and would conflict with outside extracurricular activities.
“If we want to encourage them to take Chinese and Arabic, we have to make it as convenient and attractive as possible,” said new School Board member Ed Fendley, who made introducing both languages in the county’s schools one of his central campaign initiatives last fall. “Having a class in the school, during the school day, is one part of that.”
IN RECENT YEARS there has been a burgeoning interest in the community for the school system to offer two languages that are becoming increasingly significant for economic and national security reasons.
“These are languages of geo-political importance and are increasingly spoken by our trading partners throughout the world,” said Fendley, who works as a foreign affairs officer for the State Department. “Having our kids be proficient in these languages gives them a leg-up in the job market and gives them a helpful perspective about the world beyond our own borders.”
On the same day when School Board members received the foreign language recommendation of school officials, President Bush announced plans to expand the teaching of “critical” languages such as Arabic and Chinese. He will request $114 million for fiscal year 2007 to enlarge existing programs and introduce new ones, including ones for students as young as kindergarteners.
IN THE FALL school officials surveyed all students enrolled in level I and III foreign language courses to measure their interest in studying languages the school system does not currently offer.
Of the 1050 students polled, only 30 indicated they would like to take Arabic and 29 mentioned Chinese. In addition, 40 students identified Russian and 10 listed Greek. School officials said they learned a valuable lesson from the addition of Japanese classes in the 1990s, which eventually had to be discontinued because of low enrollment.
“The major issue is when you start a new language, it is important to have a critical mass to sustain it over time,” said Superintendent Robert Smith. “This broadens the base of popular interest by cutting across schools.”
School Board Chair David Foster said the decision should not be based on a single, narrow study that did not solicit the views of parents.
“This only addressed a slice of the current student body,” he said. “If we offer such a course, interest will grow over time.”
If the plan is approved, NVCC would provide a two- to three-year sequential program, which could be expanded to classes in schools as part of the regular foreign language offering if demand is high.
Foster and Fendley both said they were concerned that many students who would like to enroll in the new courses would not do so because they would only be offered during after-school hours.
“How many activities can they squeeze in one afternoon,” Foster said.
School Board Vice-Chair said she wanted to see a more developed strategy for transporting students across the county before she endorsed the proposal.
It is most likely that the courses will be taught at a NVCC leased site in Ballston, which is near an ART bus stop. The school system could provide public transportation passes, Johnston said.
Several speakers at last week’s School Board meeting urged members to offer both languages to elementary school students. Since these languages are much harder to learn than European ones, it is imperative that students begin at an early age when they are more easily able to acquire new language skills, said Peter Rousselot, co-chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction.
Rousselot also asked the School Board members to adopt a foreign language “strategic policy” to guide school officials on the proper role of foreign language instruction and hold a public forum to gather suggestions from parents.