When the Fairfax County School Board dropped the foreign language program from its elementary schools in the late 1960s, it appeared that children would have no choice but to wait until the eighth grade to learn French or Spanish.
But many parents wanted their children exposed to a second language at an earlier age. So in 1975 a group of them organized a network of private before- and after-school foreign language classes to be taught at the elementary schools by part-time foreign language teachers.
Today, almost 90 of the county's 116 elementary schools offer a total of 465 private foreign language classes to 3,319 youngsters in grades one through six. The classes, usually taken by students for two years, are cosponsored by the local schools' PTAs and the county's adult and community education department. The one-hour classes, most of them in French and Spanish, cost the parents about $30 for each 10-week session and are given in a school's library or cafeteria or in an empty classroom.
"This is not a fluency program . . . it is a language experience," said Ellyn Grady, community education coordinator for Fairfax County. "The program gives the children a flavor of the language and a taste of the culture. You can't expect to get fluency out of a child in 20 hours, but you get exposure to language that will translate at a later time."
Grady said high school teachers have noticed that students who participate in the elementary language programs do well in the more advanced foreign language classes.
Joan Wright, who teaches French to third and fourth graders at Greenbriar East Elementary School in western Fairfax County, said most of the students in her program already show a proficiency for learning foreign languages.
"These children are highly motivated and very quick. And the parents that sign up these children usually have a foreign language background, lived in a foreign country or work for the U.S. State Department," Wright said.
Veronique P. Keefe, who teaches beginning French to 45 youngsters age 6 through 12 at Fairview Elementary off Ox Road in the southwestern portion of the county, said small children learn foreign languages much more easily than do high school students or adults.
"They are so used to learning new things every day that they don't even think twice about learning a new language ," Keefe said.
Keefe, a native Parisian, said she uses flashcards, mime, games and songs to teach her students about French customs, the weather, French holidays, how to tell time and other simple dialogues. She said she does not give homework, grades or tests in her classes.
Jane Mouzavires, whose 9-year-old daughter Christina is enrolled in the beginning French course at Flint Hill Elementary in Vienna, said the program has helped her usually shy child become more gregarious in class.
But Mouzavires, who helps coordinate Flint Hill's classes, said the curriculum "gets a bit wishy-washy after a while" because the language programs stop after only two years. "It becomes up to the teacher to push the program along, and sometimes they have to be a bit more creative than the curriculum allows," she said. " The schools cannot get enough children interested in taking the upper levels, and it kind of fizzles there. It's unfortunate, but it's better than nothing."
Adult education officials and the PTA require that classes include eight to 10 students each.
Maria G. Wilmeth, coordinator of the county schools' foreign language program, said she would support efforts to bring language classes back to the elementary schools. She said the language program was dropped for "budgetary" reasons in 1967 after a two-year pilot program.
"I would like to see foreign languages brought back to the elementary school. Fairfax County is an international area . . . a lot of parents are world travelers, and they understand the importance of learning a foreign language," Wilmeth said in a telephone interview.
Lauding the parents' efforts, Wilmeth said the beginning classes "expose the children to a foreign language at a time when they are very perceptive. However, it is not coordinated with a program to follow after sixth grade ."
Foreign language classes are not offered to students in public school until the eighth grade. High school students who enroll in an advanced studies curriculum to qualify for the special governor's seal diploma must take three years of one foreign language or two years each of Latin and a second foreign language. The regular high school curriculum does not include a foreign language requirement for graduation.
Arlington County and the cities of Falls Church and Alexandria also offer private before- and after-school foreign language classes to students at the elementary level.
Mary E. Collier, chairman of the county School Board, said she might support bringing foreign language classes back to the elementary schools for fourth, fifth and sixth graders. "We want to make sure children learn to read and write in their own language first. We would also have to look at extending the six-hour school day. I think the days are jampacked right now."