The only foreign languages most North Carolina elementary students will hear at school are whatever they pick up in the cafeteria or the playground.
The number of North Carolina public elementary schools offering foreign languages has shrunk sharply over the past 15 years in the face of budget crunches and testing pressures. But Wake County school leaders want to buck that trend by asking county commissioners for money to hire teachers to offer foreign-language instruction in every elementary school.
School leaders estimate that it will cost $4.5 million to boost foreign-language instruction. It's part of a budget request to county commissioners that includes a $54.7 million funding increase.
"I know there's a limited pot of funds," said Eleanor Goettee, a Wake school board member. "But I know Wake County considers itself to be a world-class place. It needs to have a world-class education system."
Advocates point to research that shows a correlation between foreign-language instruction and higher performance on standardized tests. They say that elementary students can especially benefit because of their ability to absorb languages at a young age.
"Their brains are like sponges," said Zandra Borrero-Moore, the Spanish teacher at Wiley Elementary School in Raleigh. "This is the time we need to use that flexibility."
The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages recommends that elementary students get at least 90 minutes of foreign language instruction each week. That group is working to collect up-to-date nationwide data on how many students take such classes.
Private institutions appear to be taking up some of the slack in the Triangle. Participation in the children's program at the Chapel Hill Institute for Cultural and Language Education has increased from a handful of students six years ago when it started to about 100 today, according to Alejandra Russell, director of children's education for the institute.
Demand is also strong at Ecole2France, said director Josette Calvignac.
"Parents of 10- to 12-year-olds are asking for French instruction because they don't have the French language in public schools. ... The demand is growing, for sure," Calvignac said.
Disparities in the area
Offerings for elementary school students vary in the Triangle.
A third of the elementary schools in Wake County, less than a quarter in Durham County and a handful in Johnston County offer foreign-language instruction. But in Chatham County, Orange County and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school systems, every elementary school offers students foreign languages.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro elementary students get three classes of 25-to-30 minutes each week in either Spanish or French.
"We're very fortunate to have community support to make sure students have a second language," said Sherri Martin, Chapel Hill-Carrboro's world language coordinator. "There are some communities that don't support that."
Chapel Hill, Orange and Chatham are not the norm here.
In 2006-07, the last year for which data are available, 98,737 elementary students took a foreign language statewide. That's far less than the 329,968 elementary students who took a second language in 1993-94, the first year for which data are available.
Debra Martin, executive director of the Foreign Language Association of North Carolina, blames the dropoff on state funding cuts for foreign language instruction since the adoption of the ABCs of Public Education testing program in the mid-1990s.
She said it forced districts to cut elementary programs.
"It used to be considered part of the basics," Martin said.
"Now it's considered to be specials, electives. It wouldn't rise to the importance of English and math. So when they pull the money, they don't do it from what's considered to be the basics."
Wake County school officials say they already provide money to every elementary school to offer foreign-language instruction. But they say most schools use the money for other purposes, such as English as a second language.
Goettee said the district needs to review how individual schools are diverting their current funding away from foreign language. But she says they can't afford to wait for the review to be completed and need more money now to start offering the classes.
Most Wake County parents who want their kids to take a foreign language in elementary school have to try to get into a magnet school. At Wiley Elementary, the focus is on foreign languages with the magnet school offering Chinese, French, German, Japanese and Spanish. Students take four 45-minute classes each week.
"I thought that it would be more difficult," said Kennedy Goodson, 10, a fourth-grader at Wiley, on why she's taking Japanese this year. "The other languages seemed too easy."
Singing in German
In Anke Chignell's German classes, students sing or speak up in their new language. It's a welcome change from her days teaching German in high school. "When I teach them a song, they all want to do it," Chignell said. "They're not afraid to make mistakes."
If Wake offered foreign-language instruction in every elementary school, Wiley Principal Erin Kershner said, she wouldn't be worried about the competition.
"I'm all for foreign language in every elementary school," Kershner said. "It's a wonderful opportunity for the students."
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