Approach to Foreign Languages Translates Into Disparities

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, March 16, 2006

Dear Extra Credit:

I am a parent of a sixth-grade student attending Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring and would like to bring your attention to a disparity existing in Montgomery County public schools' middle school language offerings.

My son is currently enrolled in French 1A, along with 13 other students. In early February, course options for next year were sent home; French was not included. When asked, my son said students were told to "switch to Spanish" next year. Of course, this renders their current course obsolete, as two full credits of the same language are required to graduate.

Jerry D. Weast, the Montgomery school superintendent, has extolled the virtues of early high school credits (e.g., algebra and geometry in middle school), so he should be aghast at the suggestion to cease offering a high school credit course to able and interested students.

Meanwhile, North Chevy Chase Elementary imports a language teacher for a subset of its small sixth-grade population. Further, Tilden Middle in Bethesda has three languages, through Level 3 Honors. Yes, it's a larger school, but it still considers 15 the usual minimum class size, though it has offered smaller classes at times (we have been told 14 students are much too few for a class).

Is it a coincidence, then, that Tilden and North Chevy Chase see a far greater number of their students later accepted, for example, into the highly regarded and language-focused International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School than does Lee? Is it a coincidence that these schools each have white/Asian populations of 76 percent, vs. Lee's 33 percent? More relevantly, is it a coincidence that these schools' poverty rates (measured by free and reduced meals via the school system's Web site) are 7 percent and 12 percent, while Lee's is 39 percent? Dropping French, i.e., limiting student options and aspirations, is the type of insidious resource disparity that serves to perpetuate the well-documented achievement gap suffered in high-poverty schools such as Lee.

Rather than offering three languages at some schools and one at another, why is there not a consistent, equitable approach? In this case, Lee elected to split the first-level language course into a two-year program; if projections indicated fewer than, say, 10 students, a one-year notice of a plan to cease offering should have been made so students would not be left with a wasted year and orphan half-credit. Alternatively, effort could be made to increase student interest or to mandate participation; middle schools enjoying the middle school version of IB do just that.

Indeed, if there must be a resource disparity, logic would indicate it should favor the most needy schools if Montgomery County truly seeks to eliminate the achievement gap. Meanwhile, the Lee students have not been offered a part-time teacher or transportation to another school, despite the community superintendent's awareness of the situation. As the high-resource schools cited above both fall under different community superintendents, the obvious conclusion is that such resource issues can only be addressed at the highest level of Montgomery County public schools.

Pamela F. Gogol

Silver Spring

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