Baltimore To Increase, Upgrade Foreign-Language Classes

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Baltimore--With recent approval of an ambitious plan that would dramatically expand foreign-language requirements in the public schools here, the city school board is attempting to lead the Baltimore schools into the forefront of a mild national resurgence of interest in such studies.

As is typical of most school districts across the country, fewer than one in four students at Baltimore's public secondary schools now study a foreign language. But, under the plan approved by the board two weeks ago, that percentage could double in the next few years.

The plan, which goes into effect next fall, puts strong emphasis on providing foreignlanguage courses for all students as early as fourth grade and on encouraging them to continue these studies in junior- and senior-high school.

Foreign-Language Requirement

It will make Baltimore the first district in Maryland to require foreign-language courses at any level.

Under the plan:

All sixth, seventh, and eighth graders will be required to take French or Spanish courses every other school day beginning next school year. Currently, about a quarter of the city's pupils in these grades--or 7,000 students--are taking French, Spanish, German, or Latin.

About 1,600 fourth, fifth, and sixth graders at eight elementary schools will study French or Spanish beginning next school year in a pilot program. Depending on the results and the questionable availability of funds, the board wants to expand language courses to all elementary schools in the 1983-84 school year.

About 3,000 elementary-school pupils at 15 Baltimore schools are now in lanàguage programs which have been set up at the discretion of individual principals.

All of the city's high-school pupils in college-preparatory programs will have to take three years of foreign-language courses in grades 9 through 12 to graduate, beginning with next year's 9th graders, who will graduate in l986. Those graduating in l988 and after will be required to study languages for four years.

Baltimore's college-bound students now need two years of language courses to grad-uate. In all, about 9,400 9th through 12th graders--including about 4,400 students in the college-preparatory program--currently study a foreign language.

High-school students in regular and vocational programs also will be encouraged to take language courses. Although these students will not be required to study a language to graduate for the time being, officials predicted that the plan eventually will lead to a foreign-language graduation requirement for all high-school pupils.

Baltimore's plan follows 15 years of decline in foreign-language studies in the public schools here and elsewhere, a decline that many say is one factor in America's international-trade and national-security problems.

Renewed Interest

But school systems across the state and around the country--particularly large urban school districts--are beginning to show signs of a renewed interest in foreign-language programs and requirements, experts in the field say.

For instance, both the New York City and Washington, D.C., school systems decided in recent years to require one year of language studies for graduation, according to Charles Hancock, a University of Maryland professor of education and president of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Aside from Baltimore, about five other school systems in Maryland now offer elementary-school programs, and some school boards have discussed expanding their high-school offerings, said Anne Beusch, a language specialist with the Maryland Department of Education.

But none--including affluent Montgomery County, where about 50 percent of all high-school pupils opt for language instruction--has taken steps to require these courses for all students, Ms. Beuch said.

Nationally, the revival is uneven, and no school system has yet to propose a program as extensive as Baltimore's, its officials say. Utah's state board of education, however, this month began considering "A Plan for Implementing Foreign Language Study in the Public Schools of Utah" that would make foreign-language study a statewide requirement for graduation from high school. If that plan is adopted, it would be the first such state mandate in the country.

Expanding Language Programs

Some language experts are especially impressed with the Baltimore plan's emphasis on expanding language programs for elementary-school students, who are said to be at the best age at which to begin such studies.

"I think it's excellent, particularly in its scope and in its attention to starting the process early," said Rose Hayden, executive director of the National Council on Foreign Language and International Studies, an organization that developed out of the presidential commission on the decline of American fluency in foreign languages late in the 1970's.

In proposing the plan, Baltimore school-board members maintained that increased foreign-language instruction would provide students with additional job skills and with exposure to other cultures.

They also cited recent research showing that foreign-language instruction improves skills in English and other academic subjects and documenting that this increase occurs among average and below-average students to an even greater degree than among above-average pupils.

Robert Walker, a school board member and one of the strongest proponents of the plan, also stressed its potential economic benefits for Baltimore, a major international port. "If we're going to be competitive in international markets, we have to be able to understand and communicate with other cultures," he said. "We've been very parochial."

For the board, which faces a projected deficit of $5 million to $9 million in its budget for this fiscal year, the greatest impediment to the plan is the long-term cost. Although no official cost estimate has been provided, one board member says the additional expense could amount to as much as $700,000 annually, with the major portion of the money going to teachers' salaries.

Next year, however, the plan will require only two more elementary-school teachers. Another 22 language teachers will be added in junior-high and middle schools, but they will replace teachers of elective subjects.

'Meaningful Level'

Only about 3 percent of those studying languages in this country "reach a meaningful level of fluency," Ms. Hayden warned, so adding requirements may not be enough to ensure proficiency. "At the same time ... the board also must examine the quality of instructional methods used in its language classes," she said.

During the recent board meeting at which the plan was approved, even some board members expressed similar concerns. And one parent questioned whether the schools are ready. "We can't afford to lose a valid program by eagerly installing it without just care in its preparation," the parent told the board.

But Baltimore school officials remain confident that the benefits of the plan will justify its costs and that they can quickly carry it out. "It's long overdue," said Thomas Troy, coordinator of foreign-language programs for the city schools.

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