CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- A foreign language could soon become part of the elementary school curriculum in Cedar Falls.
During the hiring process, new Superintendent Mike Wells told the school board he wasn't interested in the position if they weren't willing to consider a wider-reaching world language program.
Now, he is putting that decision in the board's hands.
Teachers at each of the district's elementary schools have participated in "enhancement meetings," which Wells said helped staff identify bilingual education as "a weakness and something we should address."
"I think this is one of our top priorities," Wells said.
Deon Senchina, president of the Cedar Falls Board of Education, said expanding the district's foreign language opportunities has been a priority since the board accepted the goals set forth in the city's most recent strategic plan.
"That goal said we would implement or expand our foreign language program in the next five years so we are in agreement that we need to do it," she said. "But, like everything, it becomes a question of what are our top priorities and how much money is available."
Recommendations for the implementation of a foreign language in elementary school, or FLES, program, would have to come from the administration, she said.
Victor Ochoa, Peet Junior High Spanish teacher, said the district shouldn't expect to create a wealth of bilingual students --- true bilingualism is rare --- but language proficiency is attainable.
"I am bilingual not because I went to a bilingual school, but because of many factors," he said. "I moved to Mexico when I was 6 and was put in a classroom where I had to learn Spanish. I would speak English to my mom and dad and go to school and speak Spanish. Reality is, in an eight-hour day, will you be bilingual? It could happen. It's like players going to the NBA. How many in our school will go into the NBA? How many of our students will be fully functioning bilinguals? Not many. But is that a reason not to offer it? In basketball you will still have many who play in high school and college."
FLES programs require a minimum of 30 to 40 minutes of instruction, three to five days a week. Ochoa said research has shown that even minimal instruction can improve a student's basic skill development, higher order and creative thinking and standardized test scores.
But, more importantly, studying a second language helps promote cultural awareness. And Sara Blanco, a Spanish teacher at Holmes Junior High, said it is important to begin early because a child's brain fossilizes at age 10, making the learning process that much more difficult.
"Children who are exposed to a second language are forced to see the world in a different way," she said. "Research shows that openness to seeing something in a different way stays with a child and they don't fossilize the same way. This is a huge piece for this interdependent world we live in."
Though Wells has high hopes for implementing a second language program this fall, there is still a lot of work to be done. In short, a committee would need to develop its rationale for implementing the program, look at advantages and limitations, explore curriculum and articulation across grade levels and communicate their plan with the community.
The last decision would be the language of choice.
Though world language teachers said any language would be beneficial, Wells has said that Spanish might be the only option given the local resources.
"We are focused on a quality program. We would want this to be long term. ... If the district is going to make this happen we would want it to start off on the right way to ensure that," said Blanco, who helped redesign the Malcolm Price Laboratory School FLES program about 10 years ago.
Currently, there are no plans for a language program for seventh- and eighth-graders. Ninth-graders are offered Spanish, French and German. Wells, who would like to add Chinese, said with the current schedule the most they would be able to offer would be a nine-week exploratory course where students could test the waters in one of several languages. Blanco said that exploratory year is a "critical piece to program preservation."
"Otherwise they would never know that another language was a better fit for them," Blanco said.
However, Dan Conrad, the director of secondary education, said some concern has been expressed about the preservation of the secondary program if only one language is taught during the elementary years.
Drew Stensland attended St. Patrick Catholic School for elementary and participated in a Spanish program there. Though he remembers very little now, he said it has helped him navigate the German language he is currently learning.
Blanco said she isn't worried about the high school program, in part because many students who are already fluent in a second language aren't scared of trying something new, especially if they think that one might "fit" them better.
"One just fits your personality. I wanted to play the saxophone, but I got driven into the flute. It wasn't a good fit," she said. "Language is more about the cultural fit. That's the appeal. This is not about language choice, but the world perspective."