Portland schools explore increasing Spanish language classes

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PORTLAND — The number of Spanish language classes offered in the city’s elementary schools may be increasing.

At a Curriculum and Educational Planning Committee meeting Monday night, Grace Valenzuela, director of the district’s Multilingual and Multicultural Center, presented two options to increase the amount of time students are learning Spanish in school.

The first would be geared for students in grades four and five, and would be a Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools program, with a goal of working towards proficiency standards. Students would either have classes twice a week for 45 minutes each, or three times a week for 30 minutes each, for a total of 90 minutes.

Ninety minutes of language instruction per week is the minimum requirement recommended by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, an organization that seeks to improve and expand foreign language education.

The other option would be offering Spanish in grades three through five. Grades four and five would remain with their FLES program, while third-graders would be in a Foreign Language Exploratory classes model. Valenzuela said the FLEX model would allow more gradual exposure to the language for students in third grade.

Committee Chairwoman Laurie Davis and members Anna Trevorrow and Jenna Vendil all said they prefer the second proposal. The sticking point, however, lies in the budget, since both proposals would require an increase in elementary school staffing.

The first proposal would require increasing the number of staffing hours at both Ocean Avenue and Riverton elementary schools, where the equivalent of hours worked by five full-time teachers would be needed, as opposed to 4.5 employee hours.

The second proposal would require more staffing hours at all schools except Peaks Island Elementary School, and would increase the teaching hours needed from 4.5 to 6.2 full-time employees. Cliff Island Elementary School would not be affected, since students there receive Spanish instruction from Long Island schools.

Superintendent Xavier Botana said the difference between the two proposals is about $100,000.

Three schools now meet the 90-minute requirement: Longfellow, Peaks and Riverton. Valenzuela said most classes meet twice a week, and would only need to add 10-15 minutes to each class to meet the 90-minute mark.

Davis said she wanted to see a “standardized program” across all schools. Trevorrow said she also wanted to see the second proposal, though it was difficult to look at budget items in isolation. Likewise, Vendil said she “would be wholeheartedly in support” of the second proposal, though it would come down to the financial details.

No action was taken Monday night, and there will be more conversations once the budget-building process ramps up.

This is not the first effort to bolster foreign language offerings for elementary school students. In 2014, Lyseth became the first public school in the state to offer a full Spanish immersion program, where students are presented with subjects in both Spanish and English. It is offered for students in kindergarten through second grade.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.