"&

191;Cuantos a&

241;os tiene?" Ines Diez asked.

"Tengo ocho a&

241;os," answered Evan Peck, telling his Spanish Club teacher that he is 8 years old.

Diez continued on, switching seamlessly back and forth between English and Spanish as she orally quizzed her students in Bellview Elementary School's after-school program.

Ranging in age from 8 to 11 years old, the boys and girls talked about the date, day and month, offered greetings to each other and sang out the words to a song that listed family relationships in Spanish.

When two boys needed to go to the bathroom, they each said, "Necesito ir al ba&

241;o, por favor."

"Si, puedes ir rapido," Diez said, granting them permission to go, but quickly.

At the end of class, the students gave different reasons for why they wanted to learn Spanish.

"I think learning Spanish is a good language to start," Peck said. "I really like the teacher, Ines. I want to go to Mexico and speak Spanish."

Dannae Stewart, 10, said she thinks learning a foreign language will help her get into college.

Dropping by to pick up his son and daughter from the class, Allen Kenner said kids need to learn about other cultures and languages &

and elementary school is the right time to start.

"I think it should be part of the regular school curriculum," he said. "Their brains are wired at that age to take in a new language. They've proven it over and over that the rate young kids learn languages is better than the rate for teenagers."

Diez, who works as an educational assistant during the regular school day at Bellview, echoed those sentiments.

"He's right. Research says the prime time to start learning a foreign language is 8 years old. The older you get, the harder it is to learn," Diez said.

But so far, foreign language instruction at Bellview remains an after-school program offered on Wednesday afternoons, when school gets out early. Each student pays $25 per month, and Diez rents classroom space from the school for her class of about a dozen kids.

The situation is similar at Walker Elementary School, where language classes are not part of the regular school day.

In January, the elementary school began an eight-week after-school Spanish program for second- and third-graders. The program fee is $18.

Helman elementary does not offer any Spanish programs.

Change in the future?

The Ashland School District begins foreign language instruction as a part of the regular school curriculum in seventh grade. That's better than many other districts in the state, which usually don't start language classes until high school because of budget restrictions, said Ashland School District Superintendent Juli Di Chiro.

Ashland schools have been able to fund middle school language classes because of past voter support of the Youth Activities Levy. Voters again approved the levy, this time called the Youth Academics and Activities Levy, in November 2007.

"We have a lot better chance of getting the students to fluency by the end of high school if we can add a couple of years," Di Chiro said of the middle school language classes.

But during her eight years with the district, she said she has heard again and again from parents that they want language classes to begin in elementary school.

The Ashland School Board recently approved a strategic plan that lists a more comprehensive foreign language program as one of its goals.

Next year, the district will launch a study to find out if elementary schools should begin offering language classes, and if so, which educational model is most effective. The report will include costs for the change, Di Chiro said.

Starting language classes at the elementary level would probably mean that the district would have to cut back somewhere else, she said.

The new Youth Academics and Activities Levy is projected to bring in more revenue than the past levy, but district officials are being conservative in budgeting during the first year until they see actual revenues, Di Chiro said.

Regardless of increased revenues from the levy, the district is likely to see a continuing drop in enrollment because of the falling number of families with children living in Ashland. For each student lost, the district loses $6,000 in state funding, she said.

Ashland also will probably not gain students from other school districts by offering early language instruction. Superintendents from other districts must approve transfer requests, and the desire to attend a school because it offers language classes in early grades is usually not considered a valid reason to grant a transfer. Districts want to hang onto their kids to keep state funding, Di Chiro said.

Private language classes

Students study at least three foreign languages at The Siskiyou School, a private Ashland school offering first through eighth grade.

Kids learn Spanish during all eight years, culminating in conversational Spanish and literature in their final year at the school.

First through third graders learn Mandarin Chinese, and sixth graders study Latin.

Children learn spoken Mandarin during first and second grade, although teacher Jennifer Carroll said she does introduce some written characters. Sometimes they work on special projects that involve writing, such as making New Year's cards with Mandarin characters.

She begins to teach the written language to students in third grade.

"The children have been very, very enthusiastic about that. It opens their minds and opens their hearts to something that is very foreign," she said, noting that except for Chinese restaurants, kids in the Rogue Valley aren't exposed to much Chinese culture.

Like other educators, Carroll said the best time to begin language instruction is in early childhood, when kids can easily grasp new concepts.

Di Chiro said she is glad to hear that The Siskiyou School is teaching foreign languages in early grades.

She said she doesn't know if the private school is drawing away students from the public schools because of that.

"I don't know if it's a competitive advantage, but they've definitely got the right idea," she said.

Di Chiro said she would like the federal government to recognize the importance of foreign language instruction and provide funding for public schools to start programs at earlier grade levels.

She also would like to see programs expand to cover languages that have not been traditionally taught in American schools, like Arabic and Mandarin Chinese.

"The United States as a country is very far behind. In Europe, kids speak two or three languages by the time they're out of high school," she said. "As our kids go into a global society, it's essential they have more than one language at their fingertips."

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. To post a comment, visit .