Superintendent's Notebook: Portland schools are a world language powerhouse

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I was a world language teacher for 21 years – I taught French and Spanish – so helping students learn other languages is near and dear to my heart. I feel very proud that the Portland Public Schools is a leader in world language education in Maine. We offer a growing number of different language learning opportunities to our students each year.

This year, for example, we have expanded our unique Spanish Immersion Program at Lyseth Elementary School, enhanced our Mandarin program at the high school level and added a new class at Portland High School that teaches students about being language interpreters – an increasingly vital career opportunity in the global world in which we live.

But before I tell you more about our programs, just a note on the term “world language.” Many educational institutions across the nation now use that term instead of “foreign language,” and the Portland Public Schools is one of them.

Our district serves approximately 7,000 students and is the largest and most diverse in the state. Currently, 36 percent of our students come from homes where a total of about 60 different languages are spoken. Languages other than English are not “foreign” to us.

Also, the Portland Public Schools’ vision is that all learners will be fully prepared to succeed in a diverse and ever-changing world. The term “world language” underscores that knowledge of other languages and cultures will help our students succeed in the modern world.

What world language opportunities do we offer?

Our Spanish Immersion Program at Lyseth is one. The first full language immersion program at a public school in Maine when it started last year in kindergarten, the program this year added a first-grade class taught by Pedro Zamarro. Susana Balasch also continues in her role as the kindergarten Spanish immersion teacher. In addition, Carlos Domínguez of the Canary Islands started in October as our new Spanish language and culture assistant, assisting with the immersion program at Lyseth, and also serving as a resource to other district schools. Lyseth is one of only about 30 schools in the United States and Canada to be awarded such as an assistant through the Spanish Visiting Teacher Program.

About 90 percent of the immersion program curriculum is taught in Spanish, except for such subjects as art and music.

Lyseth Principal Lenore Williams said world language programs “should begin at the elementary level, since language acquisition is more easily accomplished at a young age. We are very excited to have this program in the Portland Public Schools and look forward to growing the program to grade 5.”

Also, the Portland Public Schools this year has been named a Confucius Classroom in concert with the University of Southern Maine’s Confucius Institute, to help increase the number of students learning Mandarin and also Chinese culture. This enhances our Mandarin program, now in its third year and offered at Deering and Casco Bay high schools. The Portland schools got a new Mandarin teacher this fall, paid for by the Confucius Institute, and will get up to $10,000 for start-up equipment and expenses.

Portland High School this year is offering a new class called, “Exploring Interpretation as a Career.” The class provides students with some fluency in another language the opportunity to learn what’s involved in being a professional interpreter, according to teacher and course creator Jen Lunt. Students get real-life practice volunteering as interpreters in places such as our schools and community organizations.

Our other world language offerings include Arabic, now in its third year at Deering High School; elementary, middle and high school Spanish; middle and high school French; Latin at Portland High School, and American Sign Language at Lyman Moore Middle School and Portland High School.

We plan to continue to add more opportunities. For example, the district is working on developing a Native and Heritage Language Program to support, assess and formally recognize the language assets of the district’s very diverse student population, said Lynne Rowe, language acquisition specialist in our Multilingual and Multicultural Center.

The goal, she said, is to have the Portland Public Schools “stand out as a world language powerhouse.”

Jeanne Crocker is interim superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. She can be reached at