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Pilot program gives students jump-start on foreign language

Sacajawea Middle School teacher Becky O’Neel gives a quiz to her students in Spanish on Wednesday. The class is part of a Spokane Public Schools pilot program. (Christopher Anderson)
Sacajawea Middle School teacher Becky O’Neel gives a quiz to her students in Spanish on Wednesday. The class is part of a Spokane Public Schools pilot program. (Christopher Anderson)

Bienvenidos, estudiantes. Esto es la clase de español para el grado ocho.

Until this year, that phrase – “Welcome, students. This is eighth-grade Spanish” – was foreign to Spokane Public Schools’ middle school students.

But with the success of a pilot program at Sacajawea Middle School, it will likely become more commonplace. Spokane Public Schools plans to make Spanish available to the district’s eighth-graders this fall, and those who successfully pass the yearlong course will receive high school credit.

“I think this is a great idea,” said Becky O’Neel, a Sacajawea world language teacher. “Just a year makes a huge difference in how well they learn (foreign language). They are like sponges.”

“It’s been a good experience,” said 14-year-old Hadyn Gabbert, adding she thought it would be “cool” to learn another language.

Spokane Public Schools officials decided to offer Spanish to eighth-graders after numerous requests from parents and students to make a world language program available before high school. In addition, a proposed change by the state’s board of education would make two years of a foreign language a high school graduation requirement by 2016.

“With more credits required (by the state) for graduation, students need to be able to start earning them sooner,” said Tammy Campbell, the district’s executive director of curriculum.

Spokane Public Schools is the first district in the area to offer a yearlong foreign language course at the middle school level. Central Valley and Mead school districts have no plans to do so in the near future, officials said.

Campbell said offering a foreign language in middle school is “trickier” from a scheduling perspective “because students interested in a foreign language are usually also interested in band or strings,” all of which are electives.

Staffing is another challenge. “Finding a teacher at the middle level who has an endorsement (to teach Spanish) is difficult,” she said.

While Spokane is offering Spanish just to eighth-graders, the Coeur d’Alene School District has been making the course available to seventh- and eighth-graders for the last seven years. Coeur d’Alene students don’t receive high school credit for it, however.

Coeur d’Alene School District officials decided to offer Spanish as part of an advanced learning program. The decision was also prompted by suggestions from the public, officials said.

A foreign language is not a high school graduation requirement for Spokane, Central Valley, Mead or Coeur d’Alene school districts, but language courses are counted as part of other categories, such as electives, fine arts or humanities. However, students trying to get into a four-year college or university do need to have two years of a foreign language.

Spanish has the highest enrollment in high school, so that’s why the school districts chose that language for the middle schools.

“It’s been a good experience,” said Sacajawea eighth-grader Kiersten Moss. The teacher “speaks to us in Spanish, and the more you hear it, the more you understand it.”

Patrick Fallis, 13, said he wanted to take the course because he has some Spanish-speaking family. “I thought it would be fun and challenging. My goal is to take it as far as I can in school.”

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