HARWICH – In the midst of budget season comes a new debate for the Monomoy Regional School District: whether to replace Spanish with a science/STEM curriculum at the elementary level.
While no decision has yet been made, the matter sparked a lengthy discussion at the Feb. 12 school committee meeting.
Superintendent Scott Carpenter said the proposal for the curriculum change came from a strategic planning forum held last fall that entailed trying to envision what skills students graduating in and after the year 2030 might need. While there wasn't a specific focus on Spanish vs. science at the forum, Carpenter said the discussions leaned toward providing students with more science and technology based on projected educational trends for the future.
“In the conversations that were coming out, it was sort of a clear want to see us focus more on providing students the science/technology exposures that they see in the future,” Carpenter said. “If you look at how much our society has changed in the span of 15-20 years, we're trying to focus on what students in that era will need for the jobs that will be very different for today's reality.”
In light of the proposed change, Spanish teachers at both Harwich and Chatham Elementary Schools were informed recently that their positions were being phased out, and that they should look for other employment opportunities.
“I don't want people to lose out on applying for a job,” Carpenter explained, adding that the impetus informing the teachers now was to allow them February vacation to seek other employment for the coming school year. “If you have a position that might be at risk, we wanted to give a heads up before February vacation [but] if the school committee decides to go in a different direction, or maintain the current direction, the teachers will still have their jobs.”
A survey regarding the change was also sent to parents of elementary school students via email. Of the 1,097 sent out, 223 families responded, with 56 percent in favor of retaining Spanish and 44 percent in favor of a science/STEM initiative. A petition in support of the Spanish curriculum also garnered more than 200 signatures.
Both Carpenter and Marc Smith, the district's director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, said the proposal for replacing Spanish with science stemmed from an intensive look at the outcomes of the foreign language program.
Smith said that according to an Ohio Department of Education Study, between 270 and 300 hours of a language are needed to reach a “high novice” level of proficiency. Levels of proficiency come from American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language. A “novice” can communicate with formulaic and rote utterances, lists, and phrases.
At the elementary level Spanish is offered for 45 minutes per week, which translates to 1,620 minutes per year, or 27 hours, resulting in 135 hours total between kindergarten and grade 4. At the middle school level, both Spanish and Latin are offered in equal parts for 48 minutes per day or 2,160 minutes per school year, or 36 hours. Between grades 5 and 7 that means 108 hours each of Spanish and Latin for a total of 243 hours of Spanish from kindergarten to grade 7, and 108 hours of Latin from grades 5 to 7.
The concern lies in the proficiency levels of MRSD students upon reaching high school, where Carpenter said the early foreign language instruction isn't having enough of an impact.
“Kids have Spanish from K-7, but aren't ready for second year Spanish at the high school level,” he said. “Is there something else that we might be able to do that might yield more use of that topic? If we weave in science and have it embed throughout what's happening in math, English language arts, etc., then we can have the knowledge kind of loop around and connect more.”
The need for additional science and STEM-based learning can be seen, according to Smith, in the curriculum requirements from the state, which Monomoy's elementary students aren't meeting.
“In grades K-2 it is recommended that students have 25 minutes of science per day, and 35 minutes per day in grades 3-5,” Smith said. “We're currently not hitting that number.”
Smith said that elementary teachers already have too much on their plates between teaching subject basics and working with diverse learners, many of whom struggle with various learning disabilities, which is why the district wants to bring in a specialist for the new initiative.
“There are only so many ways we can split a pie and actually expect to have something left,” Smith said.
That's why, Smith explained, the district isn't talking about a swap of Spanish for Science/STEM, but an integrated approach where the curriculum standards are infused into multiple subjects and across various platforms.
“Integrated means 157 minutes per week (2.6 hours), 94.2 hours a year, or 471 hours between kindergarten and fourth grade,” said Smith. “Because it's an integrated piece you get more bang for your buck, [and] having a specialist in the building, somebody who knows elementary science information, then allows for support back in the classroom.”
But not everyone is supportive of the proposed swap.
“Nobody wants one over the other,” said Jane Sullivan, a former educator in the Barnstable District and the mother of HES Spanish teacher Katie Carey. “I would hope that you would spend some considerable time on this. Put your heads together and come up with something that incorporates both.”
Former Harwich Selectman Jannell Brown also questioned the need for a curriculum change. “I teach after school enrichment courses. I teach science in an hour,” she said. “There's a lot of things you can teach in an hour. That presentation basically told me that our elementary school teachers aren't doing the job they should be doing. Is it their fault? Not necessarily. They don't have the tools to teach the science. Why don't we give them the tools? Let's teach the teachers.”
School Committee member Joseph Auciello said that in spite of a bias toward foreign language education, a look at science/STEM on a global scale highlighted shortcomings in the national and local curriculum, pointing out that local students receive roughly 20 percent of the recommended time of science instruction.
“That's a thoroughly inadequate number. I think that's an extremely important point to address,” he said. “Our students are going to be at such a disadvantage when you compare the competition on a world scale. In this debate, I think the work we have to do in science is so important that I would vote to move Spanish away from the elementary level and add a science component because I think it's that fundamental and that important.”
“At the end of the day we have a finite amount of time,” said Carpenter. “It's how can we do things really well in the finite amount of time we have.”
Carpenter said the proposal will be on the agenda for the school committee's Feb. 28 meeting, at which a decision might be made.