SF students may soon get Arabic, Vietnamese lessons

SF students may soon get Arabic, Vietnamese lessons

(Calif.) San Francisco Unified School District students may soon have opportunities to learn Vietnamese and Arabic as officials there are exploring options for adding the two languages to its stable of bi-literacy programs.

The district, honored last year for its work in providing multiple language pathways, is currently conducting a feasibility study on what it would take to include the two dialects in a system that already offers numerous dual-language immersion and bi-literacy programs, plus world language courses in a variety of languages including Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian, Japanese and Filipino.

Though the district has more than 1,000 Vietnamese-speaking students as well as some 450 students whose home language is Arabic, the two languages will be offered not in dual-immersion settings but as foreign language instruction, first through enrichment courses at the elementary school level and then as world language courses in middle school and high school, according to Christina Wong, special assistant to the superintendent.

“The idea is that it’s not just for the native or heritage speakers – it’s for all students to experience the language so that there’s greater understanding among peers of the language and also the culture,” Wong said in an interview.

It also serves as a springboard for propelling all students – not just English learners – toward bi-literacy, a goal that has long been championed by language and education advocates and that is receiving renewed attention in the state legislature. Invited to share their thoughts last week at a special committee hearing on bi-literacy and dual immersion programs, many of those advocates and experts urged state Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, to push for resources and policy changes that help schools create and expand language programs aimed at turning out truly bilingual and bi-literate students.

“I think this is the time in California to step up both for our own children and to lead the nation toward creating schooling systems that really give all children the opportunity to master two or more languages and be scaffolded into the 21st century with the skills they need to live and work and thrive and lead,” testified Dr. Laurie Olsen, a national expert in English language learner education who serves as director of the PreK-3 Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) model – currently in use in over 65 California schools.

One state effort, the State Seal of Biliteracy program, recognizes high school students who have demonstrated proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing in one or more languages in addition to English. The number of awardees has more than tripled, from 10,000 in 2012 – the first year of the program – to some 32,000 in 2015.

But with some six million K-12 students – some 1.4 million of those English learners – much more needs to be done to truly prepare these future adults for success in a global economy, the experts said.

According to Ryan Anderson of the Legislative Analyst’s Office, in 2014-15 some 930,000 students took one of the approximately 36,000 world language courses offered in California schools – largely because of the state’s A-to-G college entrance requirements that include two years of high school foreign language.

“It should be noted,” Anderson told the Senate panel, “that the most popular variety of world language instruction – the standalone course for how to use a foreign language that we’re all familiar with – is typically not sufficient to develop what we might intuitively understand as true proficiency in a second language.”

Likewise the analyst said, while current law requires that all English language learners receive assistance in their English language development, “this support alone will not be sufficient in many cases to develop true bi-literacy for these students. Many will require additional supports in their primary language to achieve true bi-literacy.”

Most experts agree that challenges to creating better language programs include lack of applicable curriculum and a shortage of teachers qualified to teach both a second language and subject matter content. Many also favor a change in state law that requires English-only instruction in the majority of classrooms as a way to expose more students to more languages. A legislative proposal to repeal the law – ushered in by the voter-approved Proposition 227 in 1998 – is on the Nov. 8, 2016, ballot.

In the meantime, districts like San Francisco Unified continue to push forward with language programs that it views as vital to the success of its students.

Offering world language instruction beginning in elementary school and continuing the learning through high school is another way students can graduate knowing and using a second or even third language.

The district currently offers instruction in several languages at the elementary school level in blocks of 30 to 60 minutes three to five times a week, and at the secondary level for 50 to 60 minutes five days a week.

A staff survey by SFUSD, said Wong, revealed between six and seven teachers who felt they could teach Arabic and the same number who believed they could teach Vietnamese.

As part of its feasibility study for adding those two languages, Wong said, the district is considering how to help those educators continue teaching while earning the Bilingual, Crosscultural, Language and Academic Development (BCLAD) certificate they would need in order to be certified.

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