When Robert Breckenridge started teaching Spanish three years ago at the Tisbury School, the seventh and eighth graders eyed him with understandable skepticism. To them, Señor Breckenridge was just the latest in a long line to stand at the blackboard and say "Hola."
"I've had students tell me, ‘You are our fourth or fifth Spanish teacher in our seven grades at the Tisbury School,' " said Mr. Breckenridge.
They weren't exaggerating by much. Principal Maureen DeLoach said the school has had three Spanish teachers in the last six years. Oak Bluffs has seen five in the last eight years.
Still, a revolving door in the Spanish classrooms is just one issue.
The Island's five elementary schools have all offered mandatory Spanish instruction for at least 10 years, and spend at least $250,000 a year to keep the program afloat.
In all that time, not one eighth grader has graduated with enough Spanish proficiency to bypass first-year Spanish at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School.
Lynn Ditchfield, head of the world languages department at the regional high school, will tell you that students coming into the high school are well primed to tackle any foreign language offered at the high school - French, German, Portuguese or Spanish - thanks to the work being done in the lower grades.
But among principals, teachers, former teachers and students from the Vineyard's elementary schools, there's wide disagreement on exactly where the foreign language program should be going and just how much it's accomplishing.
One principal believes the schools should be teaching Portuguese - and not Spanish.
Some educators are aiming for a program in the Island elementary schools whose eighth-grade graduates can take a test and skip over first-year Spanish at the high school; others say that goal simply isn't attainable given the scant hours - one to two per week - offered to students.
One Spanish teacher argues that Spanish should be optional for junior high students.
And student Alice Hopkins couldn't be more blunt about her years spent studying Spanish back in the elementary and junior high grades.
"It was kind of a joke," said Miss Hopkins, now a ninth grader at the regional high school. "It really didn't work. You sing songs and learn to say dog or cat, but you don't learn how to have a conversation."
But Jennifer Ward, a ninth grader who attended the Edgartown School, said her hours logged in Spanish were effective and prepared her for the high school.
"The stuff was basic, but you have to start with the basics," she said, adding, "People didn't take it very seriously."
A Core Subject
School principals maintain that Spanish is more than just an afterthought. It's a core subject, they say. Grades given in Spanish hold the same weight as math or social studies when factoring honor roll selection.
"It's one of the five major academics. We don't call it a special," said Oak Bluffs School principal Laury Binney. "We value it in that way."
But the time allotted to Spanish instruction is roughly one-third the number of hours devoted to each of the other four subjects. Depending on the school, students might receive anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours of Spanish instruction a week, compared to more than five hours a week for math or science.
Given the disparity, Ms. DeLoach said, schools have to adjust their expectations of just how much Spanish students in grades K-8 will learn. "What we're giving them is a foreign language experience," she said. "It's an introduction to Spanish language."
Students learn some vocabulary - numbers, colors, animals, parts of the body - and how to pronounce letters. There's a heavy focus on culture and
geography with songs to sing, food to cook and even dance steps to learn.
"Where is Spanish spoken? We tie this in with the explorers," said Rebecca Geary, who is just wrapping up her first year teaching Spanish to junior high students in the Oak Bluffs School.
But over at the Edgartown School, where the Spanish program has been operating for 18 years and where turnover rates have been lower, principal Ed Jerome has set his sights on more than just a tasting of foreign language.
"By the time they're in eighth grade, some are fairly fluent," said the Edgartown principal. "Some of the books we use now were before used at the high school level. The kids are getting more proficient."
Turnover Is High
Edgartown's Spanish teacher, Maria Parker, has been at the school for nine years, a longevity unmatched among the current crop of teachers in the Island K-8 schools.
Turnover continues to be a serious problem in most of the schools. Oak Bluffs School has seen five teachers in eight years.
Jennifer Shay taught Spanish at the Oak Bluffs School for three years up until 2001. She was the Spanish teacher at the Edgartown School from 1989 to 1994.
"I had that feeling that it was supposed to be an academic subject, but it didn't ever feel like one," she said in a telephone interview from her new home in Portland, Me. "When I started, I was one teacher with 200 kids. It had this factory feel, seemed we never got beyond numbers and colors. That was a big frustration."
Julian Wise, who taught Spanish for three years at the West Tisbury School and now works as an assistant teacher in Oak Bluffs, echoed that.
"There's a general expectation that kids studying Spanish will learn to speak it, but it's scheduled at such a low frequency," he said. "There's also an assumption that kids are kids and will absorb language faster. That's true but without the contact time, you won't get it."
This is one reason for the revolving door. "Part of the turnover is that we overwork the teachers, asking them to do the impossible. We really wear them," said Ms. Ditchfield.
Finding replacements is arduous. "When I go looking for a Spanish teacher, if I get five to six applications, I consider myself lucky," said Mr. Binney.
Time for Portuguese?
What's needed is no big surprise: more resources to beef up the foreign language programs in the elementary grades, say principals.
"I don't ever expect Lynn Ditchfield to see a student who can skip over Spanish 1 until we're fully-funded," said Ms. DeLoach.
The schools need two full-time Spanish teachers, one for the elementary grades and the other for the junior high, said Ms. Ditchfield.
Still, some school leaders and teachers also contend the problem isn't so much the staffing but the Spanish itself. "I wish we could have Portuguese," said Ms. DeLoach.
Surprisingly, that's also the refrain heard from the two former Spanish teachers.
"I wish they would offer Portuguese," said Ms. Shay. "With the huge influx of Brazilians, they could actually use the language."
Said Mr. Wise: "We are not in a Spanish-speaking area. Children have few if any opportunities to speak with native speakers. It's difficult to make a connection with the relevance when adults in the community are getting along just fine without Spanish."
At the regional high school, though, foreign language teachers see the payoffs from the work done in the elementary and junior high grades.
"I get them right out of the chute, and the students are so much better prepared now," said Spanish teacher Jim Powell, who has no trouble defending the importance of Spanish instruction.
"In 20 years, one of four Americans will speak Spanish as their first language. It will be an economic necessity to be familiar with or hire someone who speaks Spanish," he said.
Ms. Ditchfield doesn't doubt that the Spanish program in lower grades gives high school students an edge when they hit ninth grade. "The overall impact of the program has been extremely positive," she said.
But her concern is rooted in the uneven approach.
"Unfortunately, we're looking at a situation where there's not equal budgeting and time spent in each school," said Ms. Ditchfield, who has kept a close eye on the program feeding students into her department's classrooms.
"Each program [in each town school] is really very different. We've made some effort in the past, and this year, they're really working to coordinate," she added. "But I'd like to see much greater coordination among the administrators."
This school year, Spanish teachers began meeting on a monthly basis to unify the curriculum taught in the schools. The goal is an Islandwide Spanish curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade, according to Ms. Geary at the Oak Bluffs School.
"Some of the frustration for many of us is that we've worked for years to coordinate stuff," said Ms. Ditchfield. "It is at a crucial point. I don't like to see incredibly talented teachers being burnt out. How are we going to make it so it works for all the kids on the Island?"