The debate over Columbia Countys elementary school curriculum revisions ended with a whimper rather than a bang last week, when the Board of Education anticlimactically approved changes to the structure of the school day.
It is an issue that has been confusing and convoluted, emotional and intellectual. So now that the changes are approved and school officials are planning for next years reworked school days, its important to consider what, exactly, has changed.
Some history: Last fall, school officials formed a committee to study the issue of equity in school enrichment. Early on, committee members dismissed the idea of expanding the limited elementary foreign language program from its initial pilot sites, and instead assessed the distribution of physical education, art and music teachers among the elementary schools.
The task force found that, over the years, smaller schools have acquired proportionately more enrichment teachers than larger schools. And it also discovered tremendous differences in the amount of time individual schools spent on core curriculum - math, science, social studies and language arts.
When the task force suggested stricter guidelines for the use of instructional time, some parents and educators worried that little or no time would remain for foreign language. But the real howling began after the school system administration translated the task forces information into policy proposals: Not only was foreign language endangered, but the administration planned to fix the enrichment disparity by cutting staff.
After a couple of reluctant public meetings, school officials agreed to let the small schools keep their higher numbers. They compromised on a formula that keeps a minimum number of enrichment positions, while adding teachers at larger schools.
Thats the plan approved last week by school board members. Foreign language proponents only now are waking up to the fact that while public outcry saved a handful of teachers, the plans time restrictions still endanger elementary foreign language.
The good news? School Superintendent Tommy Price has pledged a willingness to be flexible in allowing schools to seek waivers from those new rules.
If any school wants to propose a different schedule, they can come before the board as long as they can show they have a staff commitment, parent commitment and why that schedule would be in the best interest of the children, Price says. Foreign language is a perfect example. It could be a part of the academic core if the case is warranted.
There is hope, too, in comments of board members who openly question the methods used to establish the one-size-fits-all requirements. Trustees seem willing to listen to requests for waivers from those guidelines - especially if the schools demonstrate the academic merit of their suggestions.
A final note: During this debate, Price committed to a system-wide review of foreign language instruction. Such a study would help bring order to the current foreign language hodgepodge, in which several elementary schools have varying levels of foreign language instruction; all middle schools offer such instruction starting next year; and high school students are constantly seeking new ways to pack in more credits.
An honest study would discover what experts nationwide already know: That foreign language instruction improves student achievement in other areas, and is best learned at early ages. If such a study is conducted, it will prove that the new curriculum guidelines need to be revised to make foreign language instruction what it should be: a necessity, not just an expensive luxury.
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