APS planning changes to foreign language offerings

Until this year, Spanish was the only foreign language offered to students at South Atlanta High. Middle school students studying French at Bunche couldn’t take that language when they entered high school at Therrell. And Latin was offered only at Grady High.

Atlanta Public Schools is introducing changes this fall to its foreign-language program to address these issues and more. The district has one of the most comprehensive foreign-language programs in the state, but as in many systems, access to different languages varies from school to school.=

Across the state, districts are trying to keep up with record-setting demand for foreign-language courses. In the past four years, the number of Georgia students studying a world language has increased from 17 to more than 23 percent, according to the state Department of Education.

Much of the growth is attributed to changes in Georgia's high school diploma track, which now requires all students to earn a college-ready certificate. Foreign language is not a requirement to graduate, but students are advised to take at least two years of it.

Today's students themselves also understand the value knowing another language can have as they enter college and the workplace.

"When we grow inside the world, we realize English doesn’t dominate all," said Ashley Sheats, who just finished her eighth-grade year at Bunche Middle. "When you want to be involved in marketing and traveling, you also need to know how to speak major languages."

Sheats learned some Spanish and a lot of French through Atlanta Public Schools, but said she wishes students had more options. During a family cruise this summer, Sheats made new friends from Amsterdam and is now teaching herself Dutch on the Internet to stay in touch with them.

Atlanta school officials say they can't meet every demand for foreign language offerings, but they are trying to give students access to more languages and more higher-level courses without increasing spending in a tight fiscal year.

To do that, elementary instruction will be reduced from 150 to 90 minutes a week. The reduced class time will free up teachers who will be reassigned to middle and high schools, where services will be expanded.

The changes will allow the district to increase the number of middle schools offering yearlong languages and to increase the course options at high schools. Students will be able to continue taking the same language as they move through their "cluster" of elementary, middle and high school.

“Our goal is for students to complete courses with a level of proficiency that will allow them to put on a resume ‘I’m bilingual,’ as opposed to ‘I’ve had exposure to another language,’ ” said Anita Lawrence, world languages coordinator for the district.

Georgia colleges require two years of foreign language for admission, a major factor in the recent growth, said Jon Valentine, program manager for languages and global initiatives with the state Department of Education.

"What we're hearing from the business community is this piece makes all the difference when folks are applying for jobs," he said. "They want candidates with a global perspective, people who can solve problems on international teams."

Georgia's enrollment in foreign language courses now exceeds the national average, Valentine said. All high schools in the state offer at least two years of one language, and students can also take courses online through the Georgia Virtual School.

Most metro districts offer a few languages in high school, but options at the elementary and middle school levels vary. Clayton County is home to one of the state's few immersion schools, Unidos Dual Language Charter, where elementary students learn half the day in English and half in Spanish. In Cobb, foreign language is offered in grades 8-12, along with optional exploratory language courses available for grades 6-7.

In Gwinnett, the state's largest system, the decision whether to offer foreign language in the early grades is left to the local school based on staffing and the interests of students and parents, said a district spokesman. High schools offer three to four languages.

Kelly Mainor graduated from Gwinnett's Brookwood High in 2011, where she took two years of Spanish and two years of French. In her spare time she took an online Italian course. Now, she is a biology major at Georgia College in Milledgeville, studying to be a veterinarian. This summer, she's working as a vet tech at a nearby animal clinic and is called in to assist with clients who speak French.

"Aside from the fact it’s a means to a diploma and to college, it really is beneficial," she said. "It’s a reliable tool, and makes you a more reliable asset as an employee and to a company."

Atlanta offers foreign language instruction at every elementary school. Middle schools and high schools offer world language studies as well.

But some elementary schools offer instruction starting in first grade, while others don’t begin until fourth grade, which won't change under the new program. Some middle schools offer languages as shorter "exploratory" courses, while others offer it year round. And some high schools have one or two languages while North Atlanta has four.

Atlanta parent Sarah Peek said her son mastered Latin while a student at Woodward Academy. But when he left the private school to attend Mays High, he couldn’t continue his studies and instead had to take Spanish.

“I think they are limiting children's growth and development completely,” Peek said. “All APS schools are not equal, unfortunately.”

Georgia’s most popular foreign language courses

In 2010-11, more than 392,000 Georgia students took foreign language classes. Here’s a breakdown of what they studied:

Spanish 75 %

French 16 %

Latin 4 %

German 3%

Other 2%