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Southampton, Jericho school districts boost foreign language programs

Flagship Teachers Assistant Sumeng Guo leads students at

Flagship Teachers Assistant Sumeng Guo leads students at Jericho High School, in summer Mandarin lessons on July 10, 2015. Credit: Anthony Lanzilote

Two Long Island districts are strengthening the way they teach foreign languages, with the Southampton district's dual-language program recently winning a special designation from the Spanish government and Jericho students spending the summer in a pilot program in Mandarin.

Each of the Southampton district's three schools has been named an "International Spanish Academy," a distinction from the Ministry of Education in Spain for schools that have demonstrated strength in bilingual learning in which students work toward attaining fluency.

In Jericho, the district's partnership with Hunter College is aimed at building a national model for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

That project's goal is to demonstrate how students can achieve advanced-level proficiency in Mandarin by the time they graduate high school, using traditional face-to-face classroom instruction plus online learning tailored to individuals.

The Spanish government provides resources to Southampton, and the Jericho project is covered by a federal grant.

"We are in a global society and it is something that would give students an advantage. And we can provide it at no cost to the taxpayers -- so why not?" said Mary Marks, the Jericho program's coordinator for the district.

The two districts' efforts are recent examples of how Long Island public schools continue to make strides in the teaching of foreign languages.

About 25 of the Island's 124 districts have foreign-language instruction at the elementary school level, said Elaine Margarita, president of the Foreign Language Association of Chairpersons and Supervisors, who is an administrator in Jericho schools. The majority offer Spanish, and some also offer Italian, French or German. The teaching of Mandarin has been gaining in popularity, educators on the Island said.

Several school systems implemented such programs over the past five years despite budget cutbacks, Margarita said. Many districts were financially hard-pressed during the recession and by fiscal constraints on their spending plans stemming from the state-imposed property tax cap.

Recognized by Spain

Southampton is the only school system on the Island tapped for the Spanish dual-language program and one of about 100 such partnerships nationwide, educators there said. The district's Spanish teachers will receive resources, support and professional development opportunities as part of the agreement with Spain's Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport.

"The ISA designation will provide our students not only with the opportunity to become fluent in a second language, but to become fully immersed in the culture," said Nicholas Dyno, assistant superintendent of instruction.

"In today's global economy, having both a linguistic and multicultural competence in Spanish will only help Southampton students stand out amongst their peers."

About 50 students are enrolled in dual language in each grade, he said.

The high school won approval of its academy designation last month, while the intermediate school and elementary school each received it last year. A formal ceremony will be held in the fall.

To be an ISA school, the district has to offer two courses in Spanish -- a language class and a culture class -- and receive approval from Spain's Ministry of Education, which examines the strength of the program.

The agreement also includes visits from Spanish educational advisers and the opportunity to assess students using a system called the Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera, or DELE. That system determines the level of Spanish-language competency.

Students in the dual-language program receive a certificate of completion from the Ministry of Education at the end of the fourth and eighth grades, and a ministry-issued diploma when they graduate from high school.

"It becomes very prestigious to them," said Bertha Richard, principal of the elementary school, noting the designation looks good on college applications.

The ISA status allows teachers to travel to Spain to study at no cost to the district. Three teachers are enrolled this summer at the University of Salamanca. The program also provides the district with a language and culture assistant.

Learning over the summer

In Jericho, Mandarin has been a course offering for the past 15 years. It also is offered in Herricks and Syosset, and districts that have added it recently include Bay Shore and Huntington.

This summer's course in Jericho was for new speakers and was open to students in all grades. It runs weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Students began with basics, such as greeting others, along with self-introduction and thanking an audience. The teachers speak only Mandarin in the classroom.

"It's really hard," said Tobechi Ajah, 12, of Old Westbury, who is going into eighth grade in the fall. "But it is still fun and a lot different than regular school."

Sarah Marturella, 14, of Jericho, who is going to be in the ninth grade, said, "It is really confusing, especially in the beginning."

After the classroom portion of the program is complete, students will undertake two weeks of online, one-on-one tutoring. Their progress will be evaluated at the end of the program.

The program began with high school students. As the summer continues, there will be sections for kindergartners through eighth-graders. There were more than 150 applications for the 50 spots available this summer.

"One of the things we talked to the kids about is that you are not getting graded," Marks said. The students will be evaluated only on their progress, so teachers will know "the best method that works."

For students participating in the summer program, instruction will continue throughout the coming academic year, outside of regular class time, she said.

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