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posted: 7/30/2012 10:50 PM

Foreign language instruction at heart of big decisions for Dist. 303

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The future of foreign language instruction is still a work in progress for St. Charles Unit District 303 students.

One of the major decisions for the school board this year will be how to respond to the community's call to add foreign language instruction as part of the class choices at the middle school level. That sort of instruction already exists at the grade level centers that were formerly Davis and Richmond Elementary schools. But with one day left for parents to opt-in and send their children to the new grade level centers, regardless of attendance area, only about five families had signed up.

"It was a little surprising," Superintendent Don Schlomann said. "But one of other strong messages coming out of the recent summit process was a strong community belief in neighborhood schools."

In other words, parents want more foreign language instruction, but they don't want their kids to have to spend more time on the bus and/or away from the classmates who live near them to get it.

Schlomann said the school board will have to decide if foreign language instruction will become one of the core classes along with math, science, social studies and the other basics. If the board decides to do that, then tweaking the schedule of the school day and taking a look at staffing levels at the schools will become changes with big price tags.

"There's lot of opinions to go around about all this," Schlomann said. "I'm of the opinion that foreign language is a good thing and helps kids in a lot of different areas."

On the opposite side of the coin are students on the other end of the foreign language spectrum -- students who need to learn English.

New numbers show the number of English language learners in the district has fallen somewhat according to the overall population of the district. Students are now receiving ELL instruction from the preschool level through senior year of high school if needed. The district has a history of moving kids up through English proficiency at an increasingly robust pace. There were 491 students in ELL during the 2012 school year. About 21 percent of the students were exited out of the program. That's an improvement over the 16 percent who graduated out of ELL the year before. The state only expects districts to transition 9 percent of ELL students out of the program each year. Staff said it takes five to seven years for a student to not only learn to speak English but read and write it at a proficient grade level.

School Board Member Judith McConnell said that's too long for her tastes. She said she favors more immersion learning to cut the costs of the ELL program.

Schlomann told her that ELL students already spend their entire school day in an English-speaking class. The difference is the ELL students get extra help from an instructor in their native language on the side.

Schlomann said one of the big obstacles, particularly with Spanish speakers, is a general lack of ability to practice their English at home. McConnell suggested the district do something to address that issue.

"If parents at home would learn more quickly, and we didn't send home communications translated for them, and they had to make more of an effort, then their children would learn more quickly," McConnell said.

The district already offers a parent university seminar to try and get Spanish-speaking parents more involved with the schools. But beyond that, Board Member Kathy Hewell said she's not interested in forcing parents to learn English.

"That's beyond our scope," Hewell said.

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