'Se habla español' is routine for these elementary school students

'Se habla español' is routine for these elementary school students

In a classroom at Halethorpe Elementary School, Eileen Freed was polling her fourth-grade students on what they like to do.

When she said nadar, the Spanish word for "to swim," she moved her arms as if she was swimming.

When she said cantar, the Spanish word for "to sing," she and her students held out the second "a."

The gestures and mimicking the Spanish teacher provided helped illustrate what the Spanish words mean.

During the lesson, Freed spoke mostly in Spanish, as she had since the first day she met with the students, at the beginning of the school year. The one time she spoke in English was when she was giving out prizes at the end of the lesson.

"They really do get it," she said. "It might take them a minute, but that's where the learning starts, it's when they're figuring it out."

Freed is one of 12 Spanish teachers in Baltimore County Public Schools' Passport Program, the school system's second language acquisition initiative. In place since the 2014 school year, the program was designed to teach Spanish at an earlier age.

Brian Schiffer, the school system's director of social science, fine arts and world languages, said there are opportunity gaps for those who don't know a second language, including access to fewer scholarships and lower potential earnings.

Spanish was chosen, in part, because all the middle schools in the county offer it, Schiffer said, giving students the potential to learn the language for nine years without a lapse.

Should a student complete the entire track, the goal is for students to attain a proficiency level of "intermediate high to advanced low" after completing an advanced placement Spanish course in their senior year of high school.

"If you miss a year, you lose a lot of the gains," he said. "We want to make sure there were no gaps, no matter where in the district students go to school."

In July, the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes language learning and cultural understanding, issued a report on Passport, as the final part of a two-year evaluation. Through interviews, surveys, review of classroom materials and classroom observation, the report addresses strengths and areas of improvement regarding program scheduling, program rollout and technology, curriculum planning, program implementation, instruction, teacher perception, student engagement, student satisfaction, and language proficiency.

"Overall, the BCPS Passport Program merits continuation and expansion," the report reads. "The feedback from teachers, principals, and students has been good, results are promising, and the benefits of an early start model are supported by research."

The program started in 2014 in 10 of the county's 110 elementary schools, including Johnnycake Elementary School in the southwest portion of the county. Last school year, 15 schools were added, including Halethorpe Elementary. An additional 15 schools were added for the current school year. About 5,700 fourth- and fifth-grade students are involved in Passport.

Students are evaluated through missions — quarterly projects that create with the language. An example of a fourth-grade mission is to make up an animal, give it a name, an age and description of its family.

When a new school gets the program, it starts with fourth grade in its first year. Fifth grade is added the following year.

Staffing for the program increased from two teachers in the program's first year, to five the following year and to 12 this year.

In a proposed budget for the new school year released last week, the superintendent of county schools, Dallas Dance, is hoping to increase spending for foreign language instruction, pushing Spanish into more elementary schools. The proposal calls for adding six foreign language instructors to teach fifth-grade Spanish in another 15 elementary schools.

The duration of the Passport face-to-face lesson varies, depending on the grade and the school. Fifth-grade Spanish instruction is 50 minutes and is taught as a "special," along the lines of art, music and physical education. Most fourth-graders receive 30 minutes of face-to-face instruction. There is also an online component through Middlebury Interactive Languages, designed to take about 40 minutes a week.

The Center for Applied Linguistics report suggested to increase face-to-face Spanish instruction for fourth-grade students to match the 50-minute fifth-grade sessions. Halethorpe Elementary fourth-graders are piloting the 50-minute lesson, Freed said.

With the increase in Spanish instructional time for fifth-graders, Schiffer said there had been concerns about pulling time away from other courses. As a result, Spanish is now a "special" for fifth-graders, when classroom teachers are in planning time.

There had been four specials for the five days of the school week — one of them would be doubled up each week, Schiffer said. Now, nothing is doubled up.

"Other than that, I really haven't heard a whole lot of detractors for what we're trying to do," he said. "I think people recognize the value of getting a second language."

Freed said Spanish is most likely the second language students would use, due to the growing Latino population in the country.

The Hispanic or Latino population in Baltimore County has increased from 4.2 percent in 2010 to 5.2 percent in 2015, according to the Census Bureau.

"I'm sure other languages in the future will be super useful, but now Spanish will be the most useful," she said.

Freed joined the Passport Program this school year, after teaching Spanish for three years at Lansdowne High School. Freed teaches 19 elementary classes at three schools in the county.

She said the younger students are typically more excited to learn Spanish and that starting a language at a younger age will help students with job opportunities and traveling, as they get older.

"The younger that they learn, the more they're going to want to learn and the more they're going to retain, and then it's better chances of them being fluent in the future," she said.

At Hillcrest Elementary School, where Passport debuted last fall, fourth-graders are sharing the knowledge they have learned throughout the school to students in the lower grades. The students, divided in groups of five or six, design a presentation to teach the younger students the words they have learned.

In October, they taught colors. In November, it was numbers. In December, they taught the days of the week and months of the year.

"We're used to being the people who are learning, so it feels good to actually teach someone, for once," said 9-year-old Natalie Wallace, a fourth-grader.

In Bridget Quinn's first-grade classroom, the fourth-graders taught her students the days of the week by creating a song, to the tune of the of the theme song of "The Addams Family."

She said she enjoys watching the older students take their role as teacher seriously. On occasion, one of her students will exclaim a Spanish word for a word she says while teaching, if they know it.

"The kids really like it. They learn so much from their peers and they look up to them, so they want to do it," she said. "It's something new and it helps them connect."

In the Center for Applied Linguistics report, 39 fourth- and fifth-students were surveyed on their attitudes toward Spanish. The results showed that 95 percent of them liked learning Spanish, while 92 percent said they wanted to keep learning Spanish.

"It's always nice to try something new," said 9-year-old Mason Bainbridge.

Schiffer said the plan is to have the Passport Program in all of its elementary schools, but there is no timeline in place, as far as how or when that will happen.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this report.

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