By Amanda Wyatt
The Sag Harbor Board of Education kicked off its new series of curriculum workshops on Monday night, giving community members the opportunity to hear teachers and administrators speak on the past, present and future of education in the district.
Modeled after the public budget workshops that have been held for the past couple of years, the “educational operations advisory committee” workshops seek to engage parents and others in the process of curriculum building.
While there are upcoming workshops on the math and the International Baccalaureate (IB) program scheduled for later this spring, Monday’s workshop was devoted to exploring foreign language instruction.
The evening began with skits performed and co-written by fourth and fifth grade Spanish classes. With costumes and props in hand, the students acted out different scenarios in the language they had been studying.
Notably, some of the kids had been among the first to start taking Spanish as kindergartners in 2008. And for the teachers, they were proof of the importance of beginning language classes early.
“They’re doing an awesome job, and I think they can only get better,” said Rafaela Messinger, a Spanish teacher. She pointed out that the kids who had learned Spanish earlier had a much stronger grasp of not only language, but pronunciation, as well.
And while some may assume a four or five-year-olds are too young to begin taking Spanish, scientists have discovered quite the opposite.
“The mind actually closes around the age of 12 to acquire language, so we’re waiting way too long in this country to start teaching language. They need to start it actually in pre-K or kindergarten,” said Shannon Marr, a fellow Spanish teacher.
Offering Spanish to younger students is one of the ways in which the district has ramped up its foreign language department in recent years. As such, it has seen growth in the number of students in both French and Spanish classes, as well as an increase in the number enrolled in upper-level courses.
On Monday, the department outlined its many goals for the future, including increasing instructional time at the elementary level; holding regular department meetings; hiring an additional Spanish teacher who is also certified to teach French; and establishing honors-level courses for students to achieve success on the IB foreign language exams. Offering more field trips, as well as establishing a relationship with an organization that specializes in international student exchanges, were also highlighted as goals.
The department also discussed the need for support classes for special needs students, as well as students new to studying foreign language, who often struggle to keep up with some of their classmates. As Spanish teacher Yanina Cuesta explained, it would be beneficial to have “a modified class, where it’s moving at a different pace” for these students.
In addition, the foreign language department discussed the possibility of creating a Spanish class for native speakers, since sometimes students are able to speak but not read or write the language.
Another goal was to establish a model for middle school-level instruction. Last year, a sizeable percentage of students failed to pass eighth grade Spanish, which caused some concern among parents.
Still, Jeff Nichols, principal of Pierson Middle/High School, pointed out that despite this roadblock, the district was doing “a very good job” when looking at the big picture. He pointed to high scores that students have routinely scored on state Regents tests for foreign language. Calvin Stewart, a Spanish teacher, added that students who weren’t specifically struggling were doing quite well in language classes.
Nichols added there had been some discussion in the past on whether French was the most useful second foreign language to offer. Mandarin had been suggested before, and it has not necessarily been ruled out as a possibility for the district.
Still, he said the district would need to survey the community before entertaining the possibility of offering an additional or alternative language. He also said that adding a language like Mandarin would require an additional full-time teacher, which is a budgetary concern.
In any event, some parents noted that in order to stay competitive in the world today, kids must learn at least one — if not two or three — other languages.
“It’s just the way the world is moving, and our kids are going to be left behind if they aren’t bilingual,” said parent Allison Scanlon. “It’s going to hurt them for colleges, it’s going to hurt them for jobs in the future.”
Additional dialogue about the curriculum will take place on May 7, with a special workshop on the math department. The final workshop is on the IB program and is scheduled for June 3.