Westport public schools’ world language coordinator Maria Zachery, left, and other teachers presented an update on efforts to upgrade language instruction to the Board of Education last week. / Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — Efforts are underway to bolster the district’s K-12 World Language program by setting proficiency targets for all students.

“It will impact all grade levels and all of our languages,” Maria Zachery, district coordinator of world languages told the Board of Education last week.

The aim is to help students use language skills not only in the classroom or to pass a test, but help them use the languages they learn in real life situations.

“What this department is doing is elevating the program,” Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice told the board.

Along with efforts to help students develop leadership skills and feel they belong, the district last year began a cycle to review and evaluate all academic departments. First up is world languages and, in particular, Spanish, which is offered K-12.

At higher levels, the district also offers French, Mandarin, German, Italian and Latin.

An outside firm, Avant Language Assessment, was hired in the last school year to evaluate the district’s program.

It made a series of recommendations that a district team of six teachers, along with Zachery, used as a basis for a program analysis over the summer.

The group prepared a mission statement, a professional development plan for staff and a three- to five-year road map for making world language instruction more consistent and unified school-to-school and class-to-class.

Last year, 216 Westport students received seals of “biliteracy,” an award given to students who have attained proficiency in two or more languages by high school graduation. That is almost half of Staples High School’s graduates, Zachery noted.

Local students also do well on Advanced Placement language exams and are well represented on National Honor Societies. Zachery, however, told the board more work needs to be done to help students not only learn a language, but gain a deeper understanding of the culture, history and context in which language is spoken.

The department agreed to a mission: “To equip students with the linguistic and cultural competencies to actively contribute, collaborate and thrive as global citizens.”

This year, the plan is to develop measurable proficiency targets, provide teacher training and design a communication plan, that includes a website to announce events, initiatives and programs.

The communication piece is key to letting parents know what is going on, the board was told.

Some teachers had their first training session this past week.

At the elementary level, where all students in kindergarten through fifth grade get 90 minutes of Spanish instruction a week, Zachery said there are five veteran instructors and five instructors new to the district.

“They bring in a level of energy that is contagious,” Zachery said of the new teachers. “They are hungry for this.”

Scarice said the district is fortunate that even with world languages being a shortage area, it was able to attract enough candidates to fill the opening it had.

At the middle school level, Zachery said the foundational skills learned in Spanish serve students well whether they continue in Spanish or switch to French or Mandarin.

To build proficiency at the high school level, there are partnerships struck with businesses in the community where other languages are spoken, field trips and international opportunities.

In the past, students have gone to Spain, Germany, Panama, Ecuador, Italy and France, the board was told.

A group of Staples students is going to France for a week in November to represent the district at an academic summit. There are also online partnerships with sister schools in other nations.

Later this fall, the board was told a group of students from Singapore — all sophomore boys — will visit the district.

With a world language refresh underway, the district plans next to turn its attention to social studies.

New social studies standards were adopted by the state Department of Education last week.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association. 

Read the full World Languages Department report here: