Brandi Miller, a new parent in the Rancho Santa Fe School District, said she didn’t even think twice about the Spanish offerings when she enrolled her children into R. Roger Rowe: she just assumed that foreign language would be a part of the curriculum.
Miller was surprised to find that it wasn’t.
On her own initiative, Miller hired a Spanish teacher and started an after-school class that meets every week at a Rancho Santa Fe home. She admits that the kids aren’t learning a lot, because it’s only once a week — but it’s better than nothing.
“I think it should be required, starting at kindergarten,” Miller said. “To me, learning a foreign language is very important and I think it’s really practical, especially living in San Diego.”
A forum on the school’s Spanish program was held Feb. 28, and a group of 40 parents took part in the discussion. Last year, a parent petition to return Spanish to the elementary school level was presented to the board.
Miller said that parents are angry and frustrated because they feel that their concerns are not being heard.
“It’s not that we’re not hearing you, it’s got to be the right fit,” RSF School District Superintendent Lindy Delaney said.
The challenge Delaney said they have is how to fit Spanish into an already crowded curriculum.
Delaney has said that to do the program right, Spanish should be offered four days a week. In her experience, she said, when Spanish was offered just twice weekly, teachers reported that students didn’t have any mastery or any retention: Every year, they were starting fresh.
To make room for Spanish four times a week will mean another subject has to be subtracted.
“I’m here more as a listener today, to listen to your feelings and thoughts and figure out how we should proceed,” Delaney said.
For parent Margaret Weimar’s children, foreign language was always a requirement at their previous schools in Palo Alto and Montecito before they moved into the district. When the family lived in Italy, her children took classes in three languages. She understands Delaney’s concerns that the district doesn’t want to offer instruction halfway or just to “check the boxes” — but she said kids with zero exposure to foreign language are going to be behind when they reach high school.
“I just want what’s best in terms of preparing our kids for the next step,” Weimar said. “It was just a given in my mind that language would be offered. It’s just shocking. We have the means in our budget to be a nationwide best school. Language is a requirement — it’s not even a discussion point.”
Over the years, Delaney said, middle school Spanish numbers have dwindled and changed as students have more electives to choose from.
This year out of 250 middle school students, only 65 have opted for foreign language.
Parent Beth Vincik asked if there was a difference in percentage of students continuing with Spanish in middle school when they had some exposure in the lower grades. Delaney said that it didn’t make much of a difference.
Miller said she probably wouldn’t choose Spanish as an elective either if she were a teenager, and that’s why she feels it should be a requirement.
Parent Nikola Kaminsky said she is probably biased in her opinion, as she is a foreign language teacher.
“The goal is not only proficiency, but it’s mostly exposure,” Kaminsky said.
Parent Linda Leong agreed, noting that while she might not remember what she learned in college French, she still remembers the French she learned in third grade, through singing little songs.
“Most students don’t begin foreign language until grade nine and don’t progress as quickly,” Leong said. “Retention is harder if language is started later.”
“It needs to be incorporated into the core curriculum,” Kaminsky said. “This is a great school, no question about it, but the foreign language part is missing.”
Parent Alexia Bregman and several other parents said that they are not as concerned with retention, but about the exposure that even a “language light” program two days a week or that offering it in grades K-3 would provide.
Bregman said she would love for her kids to speak all the world languages. For now, she is settling for putting her children in Hebrew classes on weekends. She said for her, it’s a big puzzle of how and where Spanish can be fitted into the day as well as where the funding might come from.
Delaney has estimated that adding K-5 Spanish five days a week would cost $250,000 a year.
“We’re so fixated on how to do it perfectly,” said parent Beth Vincik.
She said the school has many traditions that could be evaluated to make room for a little exposure to Spanish that would serve the children well — such as trimming Ocean Week or the Kind to the Core program.
“We need to start looking at the picture differently,” Vincik said.
Parent Lorraine Kent proposed that the district put together a committee with parents and teachers to review the schedule, to understand where foreign language could fit in.
Delaney said a committee isn’t necessary because if she received a directive from the board to add Spanish five days a week, the school administration would figure out how to fit it into the schedule.
A survey conducted in 2005 asked parents about what elective choices they valued and Spanish ranked at the bottom, with science, art and music at the top.
“The survey was so long ago,” said Miller. “An official survey from the district needs to be done to see the total population interest. I don’t believe Spanish would be at the bottom again.”
Board members Marti Ritto and Tyler Seltzer said no one is more in favor of a survey than the board President Todd Frank, who has advocated for parent surveys on several issues in the past.
Delaney said she believes they are moving toward a survey, and the board will consider the issue at the March 5 meeting.
“I have been the biggest opponent of a survey because I don’t want to go out to a survey if it’s something I can’t do,” Delaney said.