Amid dire budget predictions, a second language task force is hunting for ways to get more Ashland students learning a foreign language without spending an extra penny.

Amid dire budget predictions, a second language task force is hunting for ways to get more Ashland students learning a foreign language without spending an extra penny. The school board charged the group to explore cost-neutral ways to get elementary students speaking a second tongue.

The biggest obstacle is, of course, funding.

"My dream would be that we would have language immersion throughout all the elementary schools, and two or three languages available in middle school and two or three or four in high school," said board member Ruth Alexander who is serving on the task force. "I don't think we can do that unfortunately because the way we fund education in this country is arcane."

The district used to have a nationally-recognized foreign language program in which all students received 30 minutes of French or Spanish instruction every other day beginning in the second grade, said Ashland High School French teacher Lauren Schaffer.

Schaffer began the program with three elementary classes as a volunteer in 1979, and by 1983, it had spread to all elementary students with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

After Measure 5, a law that capped local property taxes in order to equalize school funding statewide, passed in 1990, the program disappeared soon after, Schaffer said.

Now, Ashland students studying Spanish in seventh grade and can choose from French, Spanish or two years of Japanese at Ashland High School.

"I'm really excited about the second language task force because it's something I believe in so strongly," she said. "I had the great fortune to start a program, develop all the curriculum and see the magic of it with elementary school students. I'd love to see that come back to Ashland for as many kids as possible."

Exploring options

The committee is in research mode, studying models at other Oregon districts and considering variables such what language to teach and whether to offer second language training to all students or a select group, said Michelle Zundel, director of educational services for the district.

They are investigating immersion programs that instruct students in subjects such as math using a foreign language, models where teachers move between classrooms for short instruction periods and even technological solutions such as the language-learning software program Rosetta Stone, she said.

Even the language that students would study is an open discussion. Special grants are available from the Department of Defense for programs emphasizing Mandarin or Arabic that could offset costs of such a comprehensive program, for example.

"There is a strong belief among district leaders that we want students to be proficient in a language other then English," Zundel said. "When you look at the 21st century skills, the literature is very clear that having more than one language is a huge benefit not just socially and culturally, but economically as well."

Global corporations such as Nike and Samsung, for example, have said employees who speak almost any foreign language are valuable because they do business all over the world, Zundel said.

Costs could be kept down by strategically hiring teachers who speak a second language or seeking grant funding. Local experts outside of the district also sit on task force, including Dan Morris, the director of foreign language program at Southern Oregon University. Morris has raised more than $500,000 in grant money for foreign language educationover the course of his career,

Grants can be helpful to start or improve upon an existing program, but they often require matching funds or a long-term financial commitment, he said. Still, he is motivated to find sustainable funding because there are such distinct advantages for starting foreign language study young, he said.

Early advantage

"It helps young people in general to have a greater appreciation of diversity in other cultures and the diversity of the world that we live in, how people think and act and do things differently around the world," he said. "There are some very practical reasons too. Studies show that students who study a foreign language score better on SATs and as a matter of fact, the longer a student studies a foreign language, the better they tend to score."

Children also tend to have less inhibitions when studying a foreign language, can reach a higher level of proficiency by the time they graduate from high school and are more likely to develop a native accent, he said.

The task force is scheduled to present recommendations at the Oct. 2009 school board meeting, and any program changes will be implemented in the 2010-11 school year. Their next meeting is at 3:45 p.m. Jan. 29 at Ashland Middle School.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.