An idea that would add foreign language at the elementary level and enhance language opportunities at the middle school was discussed earlier this month by the Winona Area Public School Board, and is expected to be further explored next weekend during a board retreat.
The concept was endorsed by Superintendent Scott Hannon as a way to add language instruction—likely Spanish—for elementary students at little to no cost. The district would hire a kindergarten teacher or teachers who can speak Spanish fluently to act as a regular classroom teacher. The program could include varying degrees of Spanish instruction and immersion throughout the regular day, and year by year the district could expand the program by hiring bilingual teachers in first grade, then second grade and so on. Since the district must already pay for regular classroom instruction teachers, this option would likely come at little or no cost, said Hannon.
Hannon also said that while the district was building the program at the elementary level, it could also enhance options for language classes at the middle and high school level. At the middle school, Spanish could again be offered in seventh grade, and German could be offered in eighth grade, he said. That would allow those students who were not in the enhanced language "thread" class at the elementary level to begin Spanish in seventh grade, and would allow those who had the Spanish thread to explore another language in eighth.
Hannon said he had talked with Winona State University (WSU) officials about some sort of collaboration on the program, and suggested that since WSU has a relationship with Argentina, there is an opportunity for native Spanish speaking student teachers to help out with an elementary program.
Board member Jeanne Nelson said it was important to give students skills that can help them in the workforce, adding that learning a second language can give them an edge. "I think doing nothing is not an option," she said. "We have gone for some time without, I think, adequate foreign language [opportunities] and I think this is a very important time for us to be looking at this."
Board member Ben Baratto agreed, adding that at one time, the district had the "premier" language program in the state. Countless parents had approached him over the years giving thanks that their children had been able to test out of the college language requirement—saving the families money. Building the program at the middle school level, said Baratto, was important for him to support the initiative.
"I don't know how either I or anyone else can make the best decision about the best step to take in delivering something as important as language without having options, plural," said board member Steve Schild, who criticized the presentation from Hannon as lacking other alternative concepts that would provide enhanced language for more students. He said he was concerned that this "thread" option would be the one ultimately chosen by the board because it was the only concept that was fully explored.
Hannon said he presented the bilingual teacher option because it could be implemented without adding to the budget—a budget that the board must reduce by more than $1 million in the coming two years. Hannon said he would not approach the board with a presentation for an immersion school that would cost millions.
Nelson said she was open to other options, but added that there were not many out there. "You can expand it throughout the district but I see some significant costs of doing that," she explained. "Unless we move forward on this, we could be here a year from now and still spinning our wheels. While we sit as a board and discuss this month to month and year to year, our kids are growing up. As adults we may have a lot of time, but as [a child], you're in fourth grade, then you're in fifth. We've cut language a great deal; I would like us to look at new ways of spending money, spending it smarter."
Schild warned that the board should not jump into a new program without fully exploring other options. "It's not as if the board has been sitting on its hands," he said. "What I'm concerned about is if we start on this [bilingual teacher] one there is a possibility that this will become 'the one' because this is the one that's been researched."
The board is expected to discuss option(s) for enhanced language opportunities during its upcoming board retreat on Saturday, March 23, from 8 a.m. until noon at the high school media center.