Opinion

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade | GUEST OPINION

BY DALE PERRY

In my run for Bainbridge Island School Board Director this past fall one of the topics I ran on was the importance of foreign language instruction at the youngest age possible.  At that time I was concerned as to how one would carve out more time in the busy school week to add the curriculum.

Little did I know that the answer lurked in the teachers’ contract ratified last year. The question the school board grapples with, and will decide next week, is whether to add 5-10 more hours per year to each of Music, PE, Library and Art or whether to provide our K-6 students with foreign language instruction twice per week.

I have a personal belief that foreign language instruction at the earliest age is invaluable.

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to complete college degrees in engineering science and Russian language, allowing me to carve out a rewarding career. Our daughters had opportunities to study Portuguese, Russian and Spanish at young ages and I am convinced this has enhanced their studies across the board. But, this is simply anecdotal evidence and to truly find the answer we should turn to the paid professionals and experts for their advice and academic findings.

We have vocal advocates on both sides of this topic, but let’s be clear, this is not a “teacher versus parent” issue. This is a “what is best for the children” issue.

The National Education Association (NEA) represents over 3 million teachers and commits significant resources to topics such as this. NEA President Dennis Van Roekel leads off a current Policy Brief stating, “The 21st century isn’t coming; it’s already here. And our students have the opportunity and challenge of living and working in a diverse and rapidly changing world. Public schools must prepare our young people to understand and address global issues, and educators must re-examine their teaching strategies and curriculum so that all students can thrive in this global and interdependent society.”

So, we know that there is focus and attention to this subject at the national level, but what about here on our island? Again, I am simply an interested and concerned citizen and do not have children at the age that this policy will impact. To find our local answer we can turn to a detailed memo written by our Bainbridge Island associate superintendent on March 8, 2013. Those interested in the full memo could either contact the district, your school director or me.

As noted in the memo, our district’s mission is to ensure every student is future ready: prepared for the global workplace, prepared for college and prepared for personal success.  The memo explains that the Elementary Program and Innovation Committee (EPIC) identified World Language as an innovation that the district needs to strongly consider.  The goal is to bring language instruction to all elementary students during the day.

Our associate superintendent explains that learning to communicate in languages of the world helps students become global citizens, ready for life in the interconnected world of the 21st century.

Another factor, we are told, in considering the inclusion of world language study at the elementary level is the desire to attract new residents to our Bainbridge Island community. Importantly, we learn that current research shows that the study of a second language actually increases the elasticity of the brain while, at the same time, acquiring a language is relatively effortless for a young child.

Our associate superintendent provides the reader important academic research that supports the conclusions drawn in the memo. This research was published in December 2007 by the NEA ("The Benefits of Second Language Study, Research Findings with Citations, Regarding World Language Education").

The research findings state that Second Language study benefits academic progress in other subjects, narrows achievement gaps, benefits basic skills development, benefits higher order, abstract and creative thinking, enriches and enhances cognitive development, enhances a student’s sense of achievement, helps students score higher on standardized tests, promotes cultural awareness and competency, improves chances of college acceptance, achievement and attainment, enhances career opportunities, and benefits understanding and security in community and society.

An important conclusion is that the study of a foreign language has multiple knock-on benefits across the academic spectrum for our children.

This is important to understand, as some vocal opponents to this additional curriculum are concerned about a negative impact of additional curricula, whereas studies show that it will have a beneficial impact on current academic content.

Readers should also understand that the annual financial cost to the district between the two options is similar (circa $150,000 for more of the same versus $225,000 for adding foreign language).

Finally, there is a concern voiced that finding qualified teaching staff is a challenge. A distinction must be made regarding the current challenge of finding qualified teachers for Spanish Immersion (requiring the competency of teaching content (i.e. math and science) in Spanish) versus finding qualified teachers to teach the Spanish language.  Finding the former is significantly harder than the latter.

Absent similar analysis and conclusions with respect to additional hours in the year for music, PE, library and art, the findings presented in our district’s memo appear clear to me.

I encourage parents, neighbors and citizens to contact their school board members and let them know their opinion on this subject.

Dale Perry is a Bainbridge Island resident with three children in Bainbridge schools and a former candidate to the school board.

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