Columbia Countys elementary Spanish programs, threatened by changes in the structure of school enrichment, now enjoy the renewed attention of Geor-gia state School Superinten-dent Linda Schrenko.
Before Stevens Creek was a gleam in the eye of my wife, who is now the schools principal, I accompanied Schrenko to a kindergarten class to observe a Spanish lesson. Schrenkos department had piloted the elementary foreign language program in more than two dozen Georgia schools.
That visit, and subsequent experiences, made me a believer - not only in early-age foreign language instruction, but in creatively tailoring schools to fit the needs of their populations. The latter point is especially important as the future of elementary foreign language is in doubt.
The issue arose when school officials began studying the allocation of enrichment teachers -art, music, physical education and foreign language. The smallest schools have proportionately more enrichment staff than larger schools, so a study committee recommends changing to an equitable, population-based formula.
Thats fair. But the committee then swerved into micromanagement, recommending not just how many teachers each school should have, but demanding uniformity in the use of those teachers.
This report is now disingenuously portrayed as leaving ample room for Stevens Creek and four other schools to continue foreign language programs. Sure, they can keep Spanish - but only if they can make their square peg fit into the tiny round hole the committee leaves in the school day.
Local funding is not an issue, because every school gets the same per-student share of local tax money. Stevens Creek and South Columbia have run Spanish programs with state grants and contributions from parents. The only county money used is through each schools creative juggling of existing funds for enrichment staff.
It cant be emphasized enough: Stevens Creek is meeting all state and county requirements using the same share of funding given to every school in the system. No more, no less.
So the change isnt about money. And it isnt about academics, either; in fact, the debate would be moot if academics suffered because of elementary foreign language. Instead, if academics drove the debate, we would hear some uncomfortable truths that were revealed the same day the School Board heard the committee report.
ome information is in a letter from Schren-kos office, informing the system how much federal Title I funding it will receive next year. The other source is the school systems newsletter, Educationally Speaking, mailed to Colum-bia County residents. Together, the two items provide remarkable revelations.
Two federal studies of the Title I program demonstrate that the infusion of federal money - more than $120 billion since 1965 - has failed to narrow the gap between low-income and higher-income schools in the United States.
Standardized test scores, included in the county newsletter, mirror this stark reality. The Title I elementary schools are perpetually the countys lowest-performing. Even so, next year those schools will share $1.37 million in federal funds - extra money that the rest of the schools dont get.
Students at just one of those four schools receive Spanish instruction; more of the students at that school, North Columbia, exceed state standards in reading on the Criterion Reference Competency Test than any of the other three. At the very least, students arent being hurt acad-emically because of Spanish.
If the school system wants to enforce uniformity, then it should prove schools that are doing something different are suffering as a result. Test scores show the opposite. On the CRCT, 99 percent of Stevens Creek students meet or exceed reading standards; next in rank is Evans Elementary - which also has a Spanish program.
f the purpose of change is mandated mediocrity, then by all means make it more difficult for individual schools to challenge students with unique programs. But if the objective is to improve every school, then make it easier to use proven programs in exemplary schools, thereby providing an example for struggling schools to follow.
Columbia County trustees will have to decide which path to take. Linda Schrenko, a veteran in the fight against one-size-fits-all school re-form, can lead the way.
(Barry L. Paschal is opinions editor of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barrypaschal@ yahoo.com.)
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