More than a decade after the state urged that students start learning a foreign language in the early grades, many local elementary schools are losing ground.
Immersion programs, in which children study all of their subjects in the second language, are thriving in a few communities. But traditional foreign language classes, often for a few hours a week, have disappeared from elementary schools in Arlington, Bellingham, Franklin, Littleton, Marlborough, Needham, Newton, Norfolk, and Shrewsbury.
The cutbacks are largely due to tight budgets and high-stakes testing in other subjects, officials say.
“It’s really budget,” said Kathleen Bodie, superintendent of Arlington’s school system, which dropped its Spanish program for kindergarten through third grade.
“People would love to have an elementary language program,’’ Bodie said. “In terms of brain development, that is the ideal time to learn a language. It’s much more difficult as we get older.”
Arlington High School is in its second year of offering Mandarin, thanks to a federal grant and some local funding. But adding one more language at the town’s high school is far less complicated than instituting a program at its seven elementary schools, Bodie said.
And that’s a familiar refrain among area educators — some of the same school districts that cut elementary programs have added language options in the upper grades, sometimes by reallocating resources.
In other countries, the idea of beginning a foreign language in high school is inconceivable, said Nicole Sherf, advocacy chairwoman for the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association and an associate professor at Salem State University.
“The rest of the world understands that language learning takes time,” said Sherf. “The adolescent and very young mind learns language much more easily and can develop much higher levels of proficiency.”
The Massachusetts curriculum frameworks for foreign languages, adopted in 1999, called for all students to become proficient in at least one language aside from English by high school graduation.
“Effective programs in foreign languages begin in elementary school and continue throughout high school because the benefits of learning a new language while very young are well-documented in research,” according to the frameworks.
This philosophy was echoed by the the state’s education department in 2002, the last timeit issued a comprehensive report on the issue.
“Foreign language achievement is one of the areas that is by law to be assessed by statewide tests in the Commonwealth,” the report stated.
But priorities shifted after President George Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, requiring all children to be proficient in English and math by 2014, according to J.C. Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Massachusetts got a waiver from the federal law in February, but Considine said there are no plans to create a foreign language test as part of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, requirements.
“As you can imagine, cost becomes an issue and the implementation of that full-scale testing took a lot of effort, took a lot of time,” Considine said, referring to the focus on English and math. “We still believe that foreign language instruction is very important.”
The lack of a statewide foreign language MCAS test is important because such an assessment in Spanish or Mandarin or Latin would force school districts to allocate resources accordingly, said Maria Figueroa, chairwoman of the world languages department at Framingham High School.
“We talk a good game. We say we’re a global society and you need to learn languages, but we don’t really put our money where our mouth is,” she said. “The MCAS has an impact from the point of view of the resources a district will dedicate to foreign languages.”
Framingham High has seen foreign language cuts. However, the district has a rare two-way Spanish program at one elementary school, where students whose dominant language is either English or Spanish work together to learn both languages. (They can continue to study both languages in the upper grades as well.)
Statewide, the number of foreign language teachers (or full-time equivalents, as the state counts them) at all levels has declined in recent years, from 2,862in the 2008-2009 school year to 2,681 this year, according to state data.
The number of foreign language teachers for prekindergarten through Grade 5 has fallen during the same period by nearly a third, from 154 to 106.
Ten years ago, Needham had a Spanish program in grades 3 to 5, but not long after that it was eliminated.
“I know it was a budgetary decision in our district,” said Terry Duggan, director of program development for Needham’s public schools. A proposal to raise property taxes was turned down by voters, and the program was consequently eliminated, she said.
The district is planning to add an eighth-grade pilot program in Mandarin, which is already offered at the high school, Duggan said.
But the modest additions to the upper grades in recent years are not a trade-off for cuts at the elementary level, she said, and the funding would not be anywhere near enough to cover restoring the elementary program.
Bellingham cut its Spanish program for elementary students because of constraints in time and money, said Superintendent Edward Fleury.
“Lack of funding and an emphasis on MCAS-related skill development were the key factors in cutting the program offerings,” he said.
While many communities have cut traditional foreign language classes in their elementary schools, Maynard is adding an optional immersion program. The district, pending budget negotiations for next fiscal year, plans to start a Spanish immersion program in kindergarten in the fall, said Superintendent Robert Gerardi.
“We’re very focused in our district on 21st century learning skills, which focus on creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and, under communication, global learning,” he said. “And so this is one of those low-cost initiatives that we believe will have a big impact for our students.”
The timing works, said Gerardi, because a kindergarten teacher is retiring and must be replaced. A Spanish-speaking teacher will be hired and books will be ordered in Spanish, instead of English, with start-up costs totaling about $30,000. The plan is to expand the program by one grade every year, until Maynard has an immersion program from kindergarten through high school.
“We have had such a strong response that we will probably have to institute a lottery” for seats in the kindergarten program, said Gerardi. “It’s kind of a nice problem to have.”
Maynard educators visited both Millis and Holliston for research in developing their program.
“We’re committed to foreign language instruction,” said Nancy Gustafson, superintendent in Millis, which has an award-winning Spanish immersion program. “When you introduce foreign language at a young age, it has so many wonderful benefits.”
Through recent budget cuts and staff layoffs, the program has been maintained, and Spanish has been expanded in other grades. Now all kindergartners take Spanish once a week, as do first-graders outside the immersion program.
The Spanish immersion program in the Mendon-Upton Regional School District took a hit in 2010, after voters turned down a Proposition 2½ override proposal. There were serious cuts at the middle school level, said Superintendent Joseph Maruszczak, and some elementary grades were combined into single classrooms.
The elementary classes returned to their normal configuration this school year, Maruszczak said, and he hopes to have the middle school cuts restored next year.
“I am very strongly in support of this program,” said Maruszczak. “I’m looking to rebuild it and retool it.”
Meanwhile, Bedford has managed to hold onto its traditional foreign language classes in Spanish and French at the elementary level.
It’s an introductory program, not aimed at fluency, that meets twice a week, said Cyndy Taymore, assistant superintendent in Bedford.
“It’s a challenge, not only in terms of budget but in terms of all the other demands put on us academically,” she said. “In this climate, the fact that we’ve been able to maintain this is a real credit to the community.”