Amid a discussion of tough choices as the up-Island school committee prepares to vote on a significant increase to the district budget, the up-Island Spanish program came under scrutiny Monday night.
Speaking in favor of maintaining an enrichment program in mathematics, committee member Michael Marcus made a motion to eliminate the Spanish program in the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools, which he said produced marginal benefits for the district’s students.
“I would much rather do away with our second language program that we have at the school, and make sure that we have enrichment in the primary and core areas of interest,” Mr. Marcus told his colleagues.
Committee member Dan Cabot spoke in favor of second language education, but said the current program has shortcomings. “Nobody has grumbled more about Spanish on the Island than I have,” he said. “It is a core course, and it should be [considered] as important as history or science in the curriculum, but it isn’t because of the way it is scheduled.” Spanish is currently offered to middle school students in West Tisbury three times a week for 30-minute sessions. Chilmark students in all grades have Spanish once a week for 60 minutes. Mr. Cabot said the program falls short and should be revamped.
Committee member Robert Lionette said he also would support the development of an effective language program. “If there is an opportunity to take this program and develop it into a true language program, I would love that,” he said. “My beef is that presently I don’t think it’s an effective use of funds.”
West Tisbury school principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt said she had already begun to look at ways to improve the Spanish program. She has requested information from the high school to determine how well West Tisbury students fare at the secondary level to see how may of them qualify for Spanish II, the honors course.
Instead of offering the language in the sixth grade, she said she’d like to create a more intensive academic program in the seventh and eighth grades. “It is going to take some creative problem-solving, and I am not going to do it alone,” Mrs. Lowell-Bettencourt said. She estimated that she would have the new academic model ready for the next school year.
Superintendent Dr. James H. Weiss faulted the program for trying to do too many different things, providing an academic knowledge of the subject and strengthening students’ awareness of other cultures. He recommended that the district decide whether to offer a cultural awareness program or commit to a fully-fledged academic program that would prepare students to enter high school at a different level.
Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter 3rd said he would back eliminating the program if it meant an overall savings for the district. But he was unsure that could be accomplished.
Mr. Marcus said his colleagues were “copping out” by not supporting his motion. “I think it’s a little bit weak . . . that you are going to approve a program that you admit has faults,” he said.
But Mr. Cabot defended his position.
“To say, well, it’s not working right so let’s throw it out, that’s the cop out,” Mr. Cabot said. “It’s harder to fix it.”
Up-Island Spanish teacher Theresa Holmes, who spends 20 per cent of her time in Chilmark and 80 per cent in West Tisbury, defended the program and enumerated the benefits of foreign language education in elementary school, including improved English and math test scores.
“There is loads of evidence that introducing these kids to a foreign language expands their mind and their flexibility and they are able to take on these greater higher order thinking math problems,” she said. If Spanish were treated as a core subject, she said the benefits would be even greater.
Spanish II is a course for students on the Advanced Placement (AP) track, and not all students should expect to qualify, Ms. Holmes said. “Very select few students are offered it and decide to take it,” she said.
Ultimately, the motion failed, and savings were identified in other areas, such as postponing the replacement of the playground equipment and deferring window and door repairs. The salary for a math enrichment teacher was returned to the $9 million-plus preliminary budget. A final budget will be available for committee review next month.