Fairfax County school officials Monday laid out an ambitious blueprint to bring foreign language programs to all elementary schools within five years, but questions of feasibility remain.
Right now, 70 percent of elementary students do not receive any foreign language instruction. Expanding foreign language programs to these students would come with a projected annual cost of $7.7 million per year.
The recommendations come as the result of a working group established by the School Board in November 2013 to develop recommendations for improving the school system’s foreign language offerings.
The proposal presented by FCPS staff at Monday’s School Board meeting includes expanding language immersion programs from 16 to 21 schools through the low-cost two-way immersion structure.
Two-way immersion uses diverse school populations to create classes with 50 percent English speakers and 50 percent native speakers of the instructional language. In Fairfax County, seven schools have Spanish two-way immersion programs and one school has a Korean program.
Because two-way immersion programs do not add any extra teaching staff to a school, adding the program to five extra sites would cost just $148,000 yearly, said Teddi Predaris, director of language acquisition and Title I.
The second main pillar of the plan would see the Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools program (FLES) transition to a Language Through Content program. While FLES serves just 46 schools, this new program would be rolled out to all elementary schools within five years.
With Language Through Content, elementary students would receive foreign language instruction in an hourly block each week while also receiving instruction in another subject. If the proposal becomes a reality, FCPS would develop foreign language science lessons.
“Giving language lessons with a science focus would give a double bang for the instructional buck,” Predaris said.
While the move to Language Through Content would reduce costs at current FLES schools, adding the language program at 93 additional schools would bring the overall cost to $7.5 million annually once fully implemented.
“My only frustration is that this will take five years,” said School Board member Kathy Smith (Sully). “I’d like to do this tomorrow.”
While most School Board members echoed Smith’s support, they also offered questions over whether the school system could find room in a tight budget for the changes, especially with other projects such as later high school start times in the works.
Others questioned the move to the completely new curriculum required by Language Through Content, noting that it would require a significant investment without proof of past success.
“I believe we all want to see foreign language instruction brought to all students at the earliest age possible,” said School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock). “But how do we know this is the best way? If this curriculum doesn’t exist anywhere else, and we’re looking at a tight budget, why are we doing this now?”
The School Board and FCPS staff plan to continue to work on the proposal before voting on the future of the school system’s foreign language education this fall.