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Watertown May Add Foreign Language Classes to the Elementary Schools [Poll]

A task force looked into two types of programs, one where students are taught entirely in the foreign tongue and one where they get 20 minutes of instruction each day.

Watertown’s elementary school students may be learning a new tongue in a couple years with school officials exploring options for teaching a foreign language to youngsters.

The World Language Task Force studied two types of programs currently offered in other districts. One is an immersion program where the students speak the foreign language during the entire school day. Another option is known as FLES ­– Foreign Language in Elementary Schools – where a teacher comes into the classroom for 20 minutes at a time and speaks and teaches the language.

A number of districts have immersion programs, including Holliston, Millis, Framingham and Milton, said Rob Stergis, Watertown’s ESL and Foreign Language coordinator.

Judy Powers, an English as second language teacher, said either one could work in Watertown.

“Both programs really add a lot to a school system,” Power said.

Pros and Cons

To set up an immersion program, it does not cost the district more in staffing costs, Powers said, because an immersion teacher is hired when an elementary school teacher retires. The only students learning the language, however, are those in the program.

Students in immersion programs end up improving their English skills.

“Test scores, on the SAT (English Language Arts) tend to be higher for students in the immersion program,” Powers said. “Their brains are more flexible and are better able to handle language.”

The FLES program includes all the students in the school, however the teacher must be added to the staff because he or she will be going from room to room and does not have a permanent class.

A Popular Idea

Interest in foreign language being taught in Watertown’s elementary schools is high, according to polls conducted by the task force. Stergis said 80 percent of the teachers and 90 percent of parents said they supported having a foreign language program.

School Committee Chairman Eileen Hsu-Balzer wondered why 8 percent teachers opposed foreign language instruction. Many said they feel they already have a busy day trying to meet all the other requirements, according to the task force.

In districts with immersion programs, Powers said, the interest is higher than the number of spots available so a lottery is needed to choose the students. In Milton, half the classes are immersion classes and the other students have a FLES teacher come into their class.

The district must figure out how to fund such a programs, Hsu-Balzer said, and the language programs at the middle school and high school must be “retooled” to deal with children who have already started learning a language.

Another worry, she said, is what happens when a student moves into Watertown and has not had any foreign language classes.

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