HARTFORD, Vt. — There was a picture of an old woman on a video monitor in the brightly decorated third-grade classroom.
Brianna Aubrey, a Hartford High School senior, read the picture caption aloud to the young children seated around her in the U-shaped arrangement of desks.
“La abuela,” repeated the third-graders.
But what did the word mean? A few hands went up in the air.
Aubrey, eyes bright with interest, pointed to a girl.
“Grandmother?” the girl asked.
“Sí,” said Aubrey, beaming. “Grandmother.”
Aubrey, 17, was teaching, but she’s not a teacher. The Dothan Brook School students were learning, but Spanish isn’t part of their curriculum. And the Hartford School District recognizes the tremendous academic value of foreign language instruction to elementary school children, but it doesn’t have a single paid staff member who’s equipped to do it.
It’s a situation that Aubrey — and others within the district — are hoping to change.
Though Aubrey plans to study neuroscience at college next year, she said she’s always had an interest in language.
“I was always the kid who could count to 50 in Spanish in sixth grade,” she said. When she hit high school, she started taking the Spanish classes on offer, and excelled under the tutelage of Katie Hluchyj, the world languages teacher who’s been with the Hartford district for the past five years.
For Aubrey, who now has high proficiency, the experience has opened new doors. She said it’s not about learning a language. It’s about learning a culture, as when she and a classmate cooked chipa paquita, a Paraguayan bread made of wheat flour and cheese.
“We’re learning about immigration issues,” Aubrey said. “I learned about their food and music, and important people from there.”
Now, she hopes to study abroad or at least travel to Spain; her facility with the language makes it far less intimidating than a trip to, say, France, she said.
Two years ago, Aubrey did a class project that involved making Spanish-language picture books. Hers involved a sad gato — cat — whose parents had gone away. As part of that project, Aubrey read the book to a group of second-graders, and she said she was blown away by the younger students’ enthusiasm, and ability to soak up new words.
“The way high school kids learn and elementary students learn is so different,” she said. “It’s more intuitive for the elementary students. I was very surprised at how quick they picked it up.”
And that’s not just Aubrey’s impression, according to Dothan Principal Rick Dustin-Eichler. There’s a broad body of research that shows that very young children learn languages more easily, and that the act of doing so helps them improve in other academic areas, like math.
“As the brain is developing, we want the kids to be in a language-rich environment as soon as possible,” Dustin-Eichler said. “The studies are staggering. It increases neuroplasticity and critical thinking skills, and it’s part of what we need to be doing in a global environment.”
When Aubrey began developing her senior capstone project at the high school, she decided she’d like to run a pilot program, teaching Spanish to a lucky classroom of Hartford students.
But Aubrey ran into obstacles — it was difficult to coordinate a teaching time with her own course schedule and, she found, teachers were reluctant to give up some of their precious class time for a lesson that wasn’t on the existing academic schedule.
“You persevered when there were obstacles,” Superintendent Tom DeBalsi told Aubrey during a presentation on the pilot program she made to the School Board earlier this month. “You just kept coming back and insisting that we do this.”
“I was nervous about losing that time,” admitted Nichole Vielleux, the third-grade teacher who eventually agreed to let Aubrey come take over her classroom for a weekly Spanish lesson. “But the benefit far outweighed the cost in time.”
As Aubrey stood before the video monitor, the kids in the classroom buzzed through a series of other Spanish words. Las amigas, el hermano, la hija.
“You don’t pronounce the h,” Aubrey told the kids at one point. “Do you remember helado, ice cream? Hija.”
“Hija,” they repeated.
After finishing the new vocabulary, Aubrey asked a question of a different sort.
“Do you remember the game with the ball?”
They seemed to remember quite well, darting from their desks to take up game-playing positions in an open space at the rear of the classroom. After a short disagreement over whether a kickball or football should be used, the game began.
“Me gusta mi familia,” said Aubrey. She passed the football to a little boy. “What do you like?”
“Me gusta mi familia and los gatos,” he says.
He passed the football on, to classmates who announced that they liked cats, and friends, and the entertainment wrestling federation WWE. Another girl, standing with her hands behind her back, got stuck.
“I want to say penguin,” she said, searching Aubrey’s face for a hint.
“Los pingüinos,” prompted Aubrey.
“Me gusta los pengüinos and mis amigos.”
Not many high school students — even those enrolled in Hluchyj’s Spanish classes — can reel off translations for words as uncommon as penguin. Aubrey’s an unusually good student, and she only landed in Vielleux’s classroom through her own initiative. No one expects that other students will come to take her place, so the pilot program likely will end with her May graduation.
That’s why, when she gave her presentation to the School Board, she strongly advocated for a more permanent program to be put in place.
Ideally, Aubrey said, the school would adopt a fully immersive curriculum that would teach other subjects in other languages for half of the day.
“That’s entirely expensive and it’s not where you start,” she said. “But if we could just start with a Spanish class. What we start with is different than what we end up with.”
Despite the academic benefits, not many elementary schools offer foreign language instruction, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics, which surveys schools once every 10 years. In 2010, the Center said the percentage of elementary and middle schools offering foreign language instruction had decreased to 25 percent from 31 percent.
One of them is the nearby Marion Cross School in Norwich, which expanded its French program in 2015 and now offers a minimum of 80 minutes a week of French instruction across grades. Hanover offers Spanish at the Ray Elementary School, and Woodstock Elementary School also exposes students to Spanish as early as kindergarten.
Lebanon does not teach foreign languages in its elementary schools, but French and Spanish electives are offered in seventh and eighth grade, according to Superintendent Joanne Roberts.
According to the applied linguistics center, the number of parents who say it’s important for their children to learn a second language has increased, amid growing recognition that only 1 in 5 Americans is comfortable with a second language (as opposed to 60 percent of Europeans).
Dustin-Eichler said he hears the demand firsthand when he gives tours of Dothan Brook to the families of potential students. He said a majority of the 10 or 12 families he shows around the school each year specifically ask about foreign language instruction.
“They ask very frequently about that,” he said. “It’s something there’s a lot of interest in, communitywide.”
Dustin-Eichler said that, when he’s asked, all he can say is that “Hartford has a very strong program,” and point out the other benefits Dothan Brook has to offer.
“It’s hard to say which ones might not be coming because of that,” he said.
Weighing the Costs
“Do you want to try one more song?” Aubrey asked the third-graders.
They did, very much.
When Aubrey cued up a YouTube video, students quickly became immersed in their own idiosyncratic dances, some waving their arms wildly, and others hopping up and down.
“If you want to stand up and boogie, it’s in your own hula hoop,” Aubrey reminded them.
As they danced, they sang the words to the song, which consisted entirely of reciting the numbers one through 50, in Spanish.
After the cheerful voice in the video counted to 50 twice more, the song ended, marking the end of the lesson. At Vielleux’s prompting, the kids thanked Aubrey, waving goodbye as she walked out the door.
Aubrey’s not the first person who has suggested Hartford School District adopt an elementary-level foreign language program, DeBalsi said. Serious discussions began four years ago, when a committee led by Cathy Newton, principal of the Ottauquechee School, developed a plan that could be implemented, if it could be funded.
And Hartford School Board Chairman Kevin Christie said that committee was just a milestone in a discussion that began in 2008.
For all of those years, the main impediment has been a lack of money to hire staff to teach foreign language.
“It’s still a matter of coming up with an operational plan that would work, and putting it into being via the budget,” Christie said. “And that would be the next step. And it’s taken us a while.”
Though board members said they see the value of foreign language instruction, it’s one need among many, and the idea has taken a backseat to efforts to beef up the district’s math instruction as a means to improve test scores.
“I’ve been trying to figure it out for at least five years,” DeBalsi said. ” … It’s really come down to resources. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the resources.”
Each full-time staff person costs the district roughly $100,000, including benefits, according to Dustin-Eichler. Implementing a program at the three elementary schools could involve adding three positions, or a single person who would rotate among the schools.
“I would go on the skinny side to get it going and see what happens,” DeBalsi said.
School Board member Michelle Boleski said she favored finding a way to make it work.
“I think we have to look at it, instead of a cost, as an investment in our community. An investment in our school district. An investment in the future,” she said. “Maybe if we could approach it that way.”
But school officials are always trying to walk the line between making investments in educational quality without triggering a revolt among taxpayers. The Hartford School Board currently is working to bring in its proposed budget for the 2018-19 school year.
Board members have agreed to target a spending increase of 3 percent, or about $850,000, nearly all of which would go to fixed-cost increases for things like negotiated teacher salary increases, and additional special education costs. School Board members also have indicated an interest in adding an administrative position that would help to manage the school’s public image to the community. The board is required to complete the proposed budget by the end of January.
“Any time that we can expand those options and opportunities for our students, we are going to create a better environment for them,” Christie said. “We just need to come up with that collective will to get a pilot started.”
After Aubrey’s presentation, the board asked DeBalsi to identify what adding a program would cost.
“I want to keep it on the board’s radar and look at it as we go through the budget season,” DeBalsi said. “And if not, we’ll bring it back again next year.”
Information from: Lebanon Valley News, http://www.vnews.com