SOUTH KINGSTOWN – While South Kingstown has long been recognized for its excellence in dual language immersion, this school year had marked the first time world language instruction was made available to every child at every grade level. Unfortunately, the district’s youngest students will not have the same opportunities next year.
After facing another year of sharp cuts to educational state aid, the district was forced to also make in-kind sharp cuts to personnel–from secretaries and clerks to teachers across all departments and levels. The district’s sole elementary Spanish teacher, Kelly Harrington, was among the 40.9 full-time employee reductions.
“While I thought and I hoped that we were just getting started this year, this program has now been cut due to budgetary concerns,” Harrington said at a May 14 school committee meeting. “Concerns that I completely understand to be very real. These are concerns that I in no way minimize because I come here tonight not only as a teacher but also as a parent and a taxpayer new to the district.”
“I’m here to ask you to reconsider the decision to eliminate this amazing opportunity for all of your students to become bilingual before entering high school,” she continued.
Although Harrington said she’s enjoyed the challenges of teaching 55 classes across four different schools, working with both monolingual students outside the DLI program and as a cultural itinerant for students within the DLI program, she said her main concern isn’t for her position, but the learning opportunity for students.
“I want the program to continue, even if it’s not me,” Harrington said in a phone interview on Monday evening. “I’m not speaking for my job, I’m speaking for the program. I’m not talking about saving me, I’m talking about saving the program for the kids because you’ve started something really awesome. I think it’s such a shame to take it away now.”
These programs not only help students become fluent in another language, she said, but also help improve students’ all-around academic performance. Studying a second language has been shown to improve literacy in students’ native languages, better their problem-solving skills and test scores in other academic disciplines, and makes them more accepting of cultural differences.
The sooner children are able to start learning a new language, the better, Harrington said.
“When you start language at such a young age, they’re just super enthusiastic about it,” she said. “They’re excited to learn it. They’re excited to be able to do something that even other adults around them can’t do. They have this superpower.”
Community member Peter Fitzpatrick, whose son is currently in Kindergarten, stood up in support of Harrington’s position at the same May 14 school committee meeting. Going into the start of the school year, his son had hoped to be part of the DLI program but fell far down on the waiting list. Because of the current program, though, he was still able to receive exposure to a new language.
“He has been learning Spanish this year, thanks to his Spanish teacher, Kelly Harrington,” Fitzpatrick said. “I hope you consider saving that position, and I want to keep my son excited to learn Spanish.”
Although there is a slim chance that the district will be able to retain the program next year, Harrington isn’t getting her hopes up.
“The school committee, at its last meeting, did ask the interim superintendent and administration to take a look at the administrative retirements and the teacher retirements and looking at the final numbers again to see if there were any possibilities of bringing anything back,” Harrington said. “At this point I’m doubtful.”
“The school committee really wanted to keep my position,” she added. “Several of them are parents and it impacts their children directly.”
If the South Kingstown Town Council were able to award the school committee it’s full budget request without exceeding the 4 percent property tax levy increase, Harrington’s position would have been saved. The answer to saving the program, she said, shouldn’t be doing away with the DLI program altogether, though.
“I know there’s some people who say ‘we should eliminate DLI and then we could hire a couple of Spanish teachers and then just offer Spanish multiple times a week to all the kids,’ which I know would save my job, but that’s not what I want to happen,” Harrington said.
She wants the program to continue as an example for the rest of the state and offer children immersion opportunities they wouldn’t receive if Spanish were just another class added into the school day, like music or gym. Currently, she sees each class 15 to 17 times a school year for 30 minutes, once every other week.
In that time, Harrington tries to expose students to as much language as possible, teaching them common conversational phrases and vocabulary, sharing music, games and stories they are able to follow along with through her charades and drawings on the board. Since none of the elementary classes have received any language instruction before this year, the curriculum looked very similar across all grade levels.
Although this exposure may seem limited to the point of being ineffective in some people’s eyes, Rhode Island Foreign Language Association President Amy Hubertus stresses that introducing children to languages from a young age is critical.
“There are lots of studies that have been done that prove that early language education is the best for kids,” Hubertus said. “It allows students to become more native in their fluency, in their pronunciation, if they start at an earlier age.”
Grade school is also an ideal time to begin learning languages, according to Hubertus, because of what’s referred to as the affective filter – when children begin to retreat from trying new things because they might embarrass themselves.
“It’s that thing that my daughter won’t call anybody on the phone because she thinks she’s going to embarrass herself, or she won’t go talk to an adult because she’s nervous about looking weird,” Hubertus said. “Elementary school kids do not have that affective filter built yet.”
The affective filter grows as children age, according to Hubertus, and it’s often at its highest when children reach middle school and they’re worried about fitting in and not wanting to stick out. This makes middle school one of the worst possible times to introduce a new language, she said.
“They are not going to want to look stupid in front of their peers, which means they’re not going to try to pronounce this new phrase or word because they might get it wrong,” Herbertus said. “You can’t learn language by studying a book and being silent. Language is about communication, and you’re always going to be putting yourself out there.”
By cutting language programs now, she said, students may be hindered later in life when they begin taking classes. After the age of 17, it becomes increasingly more difficult for people to acquire a second language.
“It’s like South Kingstown took five giant steps forward and then one step back,” Hubertus said.
The RIFLA, which advocates on behalf of the teaching and study of foreign languages, previously advocated in support of the South Kingstown High School French program, which was being considered in the line of personnel cuts initially.
Harrington said she’s glad to see the program stay intact not only for those who might not want to study Spanish but for those coming into high school who may already be fluent.
“You could easily have kids who are trilingual,” Harrington said. “Once you learn a second language, it’s much easier to acquire multiple languages after that – especially when you start so young.”
Although she came into South Kingstown with years of teaching at the high school level, Harrington said she hopes to get another job teaching to elementary students, who could easily become fluent from the exposure they receive in class. The focus is much less on conjugation tables, and more on fun, immersion type activities.
“I don’t think language is to be learned, it’s to be acquired,” Harrington said. “Language wasn’t made to be memorized. If you give kids enough input, especially when they’re young, they will acquire the language and then they will use it in the output. But we’re asking for output before we’re giving them any input.”