Darien discusses implementing foreign language courses in elementary schools

Elementary school students may have the opportunity to learn a new language as the Board of Education began discussing a potential addition to the curriculum.

Superintendent of Schools Stephen Falcone prefaced discussion of implementing a foreign languages course at the elementary level by saying the administration had been looking at the question for a while.

"It's expanding the foreign language program," Falcone said. "We know we have a lot going on at the elementary schools but this would make a more complete program at the sixth-rade level."

Assistant Superintendent of Schools Judith Pandolfo said much of the work on the program was based on work done in the previous year.

"Research speaks to the value of programs like this because they stimulate a part of the brain that might not be in other courses," Pandolfo said. "It also encourages respect for other cultures."

When looking at what type of program the schools could possibly implement, Pandolfo said a Flex program was chosen because it worked the best with the amount of time the schools could devote to foreign languages. The amount of time that the schools would set aside for foreign languages would be in the 1 to 5 percent range, Pandolfo said.

One of the obstacles the schools would have to deal with is finding teachers for the courses, Pandolfo said.

"It's hard to find really good teachers," Pandolfo said. "Generally, the programs are usually Spanish based."

Pandolfo said the administration recommends doing a Spanish program which could be folded into the already existing specials program.

"By making it a special we can give it a nice chunk of time," Pandolfo said. "Children will get cultural benefits and many of them will come out with listening and some speaking skills, as well as some reading and writing."

However, if the schools choose to implement a foreign languages program, it becomes an all or nothing scenario, Pandolfo said.

"There's no way to phase it in."

The daily rotation would also change for students as their schedules would go from a five period rotation to a six period rotation, Pandolfo said.

"There is a slight shifting in the amount of time but not a total loss of time," Pandolfo said in regards to the scheduling change.

BOE Chairwoman Kim Westcott asked if the core instructional courses would lose time as a result of a new program.

Pandolfo said the core instructional courses wouldn't change but some of the specials courses would gain time. However, Pandolfo did acknowledge that some grades could lose time in some specials courses while others would gain time.

Board member Morgan Whittier asked if it would still be possible to phase in the program while using the new rotation.

Pandolfo said the problem with phasing in the program with the new schedule would be that teachers would be left with empty blocks of time.

Secretary Clara Sartori asked if the fourth and fifth grade would benefit from a more extensive block of time in a course.

"The money issue is sort of a stopping point," Sartori said.

Pandolfo said the schedule could be tweaked because she realized there would be holes.

Whittier suggested that there would be an opportunity to see the program grow from the ground up and see how valuable the project is to students.

Board member Susan Perticone asked if there was any way to make sure the experience for students was similar across the entire district.

"There are already Flex programs available and we would make sure we put together a curriculum," Pandolfo said.

Other concerns included whether changing the daily schedule would be too difficult for students and if there was a danger of a foreign language program bumping into the foreign language program that begins in sixth grade.

"Many of the districts that do this realize it's not insurmountable because once you establish a schedule, it stays the same for the whole year," Pandolfo said.

Board member Heather Shea asked if it would be necessary to hire a full-time teacher.

"We need to have a coordinator for the program and we might be able to squeeze it out with a part-time but it just makes it that much tighter," Pandolfo said.

Westcott said she was glad to see discussion begin on implementing a foreign language program.

"I'm happy the board has had the opportunity to look at how it is being planned," Westcott said.