I live in Douglas County. For those of you who aren’t in Colorado, Douglas County is a large county that stretches from just south of the Denver metro area to just north of Colorado Springs. Due to its location and previously low population, it has been one of the fastest growing counties in the United States over the last ten to fifteen years. It is also the school district that is just south of my school district, and there are quite a few students who reside in one and go to school in the other (Colorado has fairly liberal school choice laws).
Beginning next fall, Douglas County Schools will begin implementing a K-12 World Languages program. While there are a whole lot of details still to be worked out, the basic idea is that students will receive instruction in a particular world language for every one of the thirteen years they are in Douglas County Schools, with the stated goal that every graduate from a Douglas County high school will be proficient in reading, writing and speaking a second language (in addition to English).
I’m a little worried about their implementation timeline, however, as I think they have many, many contentious issues that have to be decided and that will be fairly controversial, and it’s going to be tough to get it done by next fall. But I don’t want to focus on the negatives right now, both because I’m not aware of all the work they have already done and are going to do, and because I’d rather focus on some of the positives that are undoubtedly going to occur once they have all the contentious issues worked out.
I’m just going to focus on a couple of the things I’ve heard about the program. First, why they’re doing it. Certainly part of it is to help prepare students for future careers in a global economy where knowing another language will be helpful, but they also have stated that it’s to increase their students’ knowledge of other cultures. That knowing another language is not only useful in helping you get a good job, but it’s helpful in understanding the world and all the people in it. That being a knowledgeable citizen of the 21st century requires you to have more than just a passing acquaintance with other languages and cultures.
Second, at the elementary level at least, the current plan is to do this in the regular classroom (i.e., students will not go to a World Languages teacher for this instruction, but will get it from their regular classroom teacher). They are looking at various modes of delivery, with a strong possibility that a fair amount of the delivery will be by technological means. But here’s the part I love (and will be one of those contentious issues) – the teachers are expected to learn the language right alongside the students. Ignoring the contentious part, how powerful is that? What better demonstration to students that they need to be lifelong learners, that their teachers are learners as well. (As the sign on my office window says, “We are all teachers. We are all learners.”) And, at least at the beginning (when most teachers are still new to the language), think how much good it is going to do by reminding teachers what it feels like to learn something that’s hard for them. Will that maybe remind them of some of the struggles their students are going through and give them a little more empathy?
So, the question for my school district is, “Are we looking at something like this?” Because in a flat world, in a globally interconnected economy, in a 24/7/365 business cycle, in a world where understanding all the people and all the cultures of the world is terribly important for economic, political and social reasons – our students need this. And my impression from my World Languages teachers is that – at the moment – the majority of our students are nowhere near proficient in a second language when they graduate.
Even if you don’t agree with the above rationale, there’s another reason to ask this question in my district. We’ve been losing enrollment the last few years, especially at the elementary and middle levels (we’re a landlocked district with a lot of families where the kids have grown up and moved on.) If I’m a parent that lives in northern Douglas County (which I am), or a parent that lives in Littleton/Centennial, I have to make a decision about where to send my kids to school. And a K-12 World Languages program, where the stated goal is proficiency in a second language when they graduate from high school, is a very big checkmark in the “pro” column for Douglas County.