French Leaves Laning


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French will be replaced with Mandarin at Laning Avenue School beginning in September for the 2012-2013 school year.

There will be no transition period from French to Mandarin. All students, even incoming fourth graders who have already been studying French for three years, will begin the new school year with Mandarin. French is being retained at H.B. Whitehorne (and at Verona High School), and Laning students will once again have the opportunity to study French at the middle school.

A longer term plan, which will be effective with the 2013-2014 school year, will make further changes to foreign language instruction at all four elementary schools. Currently, all students receive foreign language instruction for 30 minutes once a week in grades 1 and 2, and for one hour per week in grades 3 and 4.

The switch at Laning is being driven partly by the departure of its current part-time French teacher, Emily Podolak, for a full-time French position at the middle school this fall. But it is the outgrowth of a change in elementary school language instruction that began about two decades ago.

Historically, French and Spanish were taught at all Verona elementary schools. Beginning in the late 1950s, one third-grade class would be taught French across all four schools; the following year’s third graders would get Spanish. Then Verona designated Laning and Forest as French instruction schools and Brookdale and F.N. Brown as Spanish schools. But in the 1990s, Forest Avenue switched to Mandarin. The immersion method used there–only Mandarin is spoken during the language instruction period– has frequently produced award-winning Mandarin students at VHS: Kristina DiStaso, currently a VHS senior, won second place in the advanced special category in the Chinese Bridge U.S. High School Student Chinese Speech Contest in 2011. But the switch led to a patchwork of language instruction, with home address being the only thing determining which language a student learned.

Elizabeth Jewett, director of instructional studies for Verona schools, presented the new plan to the Laning SCA on Monday, June 4. She said that the previous language plan had led to imbalances at the middle school.  Jewett said that, while students could switch to a new language at HBW, many did not because they felt they would be at a deficit trying to learn a new language that others already had four years.

But there are longer term language changes coming to all four elementary schools. The district has been working for several years to ensure that Verona children arrive at HBW with the equal understanding of core subjects like math, science and English. That approach now is apparently being extended to foreign languages. Jewett told the Laning SCA that, at the June 19 Board of Education meeting, she will outline a plan to teach both Spanish and Mandarin at all four elementary schools, beginning with the 2013-2014 school year.

Under the new plan, two of the elementary schools will have Spanish for the first half of the year while the other two will have Mandarin.  In the second half of the year, those who had started with Spanish will switch to Mandarin and vice versa. The number of hours of foreign language per grade will remain as it is. It is not yet known whether the new approach will mandate immersion instruction.

According to Jewett, the goal of the new plan is to create a “consistent experience” for elementary students across the district, and enable students to make more “informed language choice decisions”. The new plan would also bring Verona in line with similar districts, where she said all elementary aged students learn the same language. In those districts, such as Madison and New Providence, that is usually only one language, so Verona would be at an advantage by teaching two languages.

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