Parents Making It Happen At Schools Creating Foreign-Language Program Illustrates New Level Of Interest

SUNDAY, FEB. 19, 1995

Kim Harmson wanted her 11-year-old daughter to learn French. So last fall, she organized a before-hours class at Kendra’s school.

Now - just five months later - more than 100 of Kendra’s classmates at Jefferson Elementary are taking French, Japanese, Spanish, German and Russian, before and after school from tutors Harmson hired.

The idea spread. Parents at Wilson Elementary and Cataldo Catholic School heard about the classes, called Harmson for advice and started their own programs.

Now parents from still more schools are calling.

While a state commission studies the costs of teaching foreign languages at elementary schools statewide, parents in Spokane are just doing it.

With approval from the school principals, they are hiring the tutors, publicizing the classes, running registration and collecting the $20 class fees.

“We’re making it happen now. We cannot wait,” said Marcia Loft, who helped organize the Wilson classes.

“I like it,” said Eric Loft, Marcia’s 9-yearold son, after a Spanish class last week. “The teacher always talks in Spanish and she’s real patient.”

A new level of parent involvement is catching fire in Spokane School District, and the foreign language classes at Wilson and Jefferson are an instructive case study.

“I’ve been in this business a long, long time and I can’t think, other than in the last few years, of other examples of this kind of parent interest. And that’s to be encouraged,” said Jefferson Elementary Principal Mary Dean Wooley.

The parents’ efforts won’t be ignored. Spokane School District language supporters will cite the parents’ hard work as evidence of public support for language training at all elementary schools.

“The fact we have parents interested enough to organize classes before and after school means we really need to take a look at it,” said school district Curriculum Director Nancy Stowell.

The classes are so popular that parents who come late for registration are out of luck.

“I had a friend who showed up at five minutes after (registration began at) 6 o’clock. She was number 125 in line,” said parent organizer Michele Moore.

Because of demand, the Wilson organizers added four classes to the six already planned. More than onethird of Wilson’s 335 students take the language classes, which began last month.

Teachers support the program. They allow tutors to use their classrooms. Some even sit in on the classes to pick up a few words.

Principals offered their backing without bogging down the project with questions about liability, rent or potential problems with the teachers union.

“This program could have been stopped flat,” Loft said. “Those red flags could have gone up. Instead it was like `Yeah, this is a great idea. Why don’t you see where you can go with it?”’

Such smooth sailing for the parents came about for several reasons.

Superintendent Gary Livingston, hired two years ago, stresses “customer service” and allows principals to make more decisions without consulting the district office.

Meanwhile, the state Commission on Student Learning is studying elementary school foreign languages and possibly requiring all students in the state to graduate bilingual.

There is also a nationwide push toward meaningful parent involvement in schools.

Educators from Education Secretary Richard Riley to classroom teachers are calling for parents to become partners in their children’s schooling.

Parents are responding.

“This is a real good example of how well we work together,” said Wilson Elementary Principal Bob Pedersen.

Parents must be willing to put in sweat equity to get support from principals and teachers, educators said.

Harmson worked hard for the program. She gathered evidence that children learn languages faster the younger they begin, and that early language study leads to greater mental flexibility, increased respect for other cultures and ease in learning additional languages later.

She spent hours on the telephone tracking down language teachers.

“I would cringe to think of adding up the hours,” she said.

Harmson and the other parent organizers plan to meet this summer to share their knowledge and compile a packet of how-to information for other parents.

Their long-term goal is to push the district for language training during the regular elementary school day.

Then there’s middle school.

Harmson recently attended a meeting for parents of future middle school students.

At the meeting, the principal of Sacajawea Middle School, where Kendra will attend next fall, explained that the school teaches no foreign languages now, but may add them in years to come.

“I said to him, `It might be sooner than you think.”’

MEMO: See also sidebar which appeared with this story under headline “Starting projects”

See also sidebar which appeared with this story under headline “Starting projects”


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