Curriculum crusade: Spanish as elective perturbs parents

Walker Upper Elementary is making Spanish an elective rather than a required course. Staff photo Walker Upper Elementary is making Spanish an elective rather than a required course. Staff photo

Come this fall, Walker Upper Elementary, which serves the city’s fifth and sixth graders, will drop its Spanish language requirement for a focus on math and science instruction.

During a January school board meeting, Principal Adam Hastings said the change, which the school board approved in February, was prompted by “a need for students to receive focused math and science instruction.” But when reached for comment, Hastings focused on the fact that the school is also adding a second elective, and said “having kids find joy and love learning” helps make them successful.

Still, the move to make Spanish an elective has recently raised alarm among parents, some of whom showed up at an April 11 school board meeting to express their discontent.

“I wish I wouldn’t have thoughts of taking my kid out of Walker, but I do have them,” says Minou Beling, whose 11-year-old is a fifth grader there.

Many of the area’s private schools have foreign-language requirements through middle school, including the Waldorf School, St. Anne’s-Belfield, Village School, and the Field School.

“So the rich will continue to get this,” says Tony Lin, whose son is a sixth grader at Walker. “The wealthy will put their kids there. …They’re going to have a leg up on everybody else.”

School officials say some misinformation has been circulating among parents about the upcoming changes, and that they will be adding a second elective to next school year’s course load to give students more options. All students will be required to take a fine arts elective, and they will choose from a second fine arts class, Spanish, or STEM as the additional elective. STEM content is also already wrapped into the core curriculum.

Beling says she doesn’t want her son to have to choose between those offerings.

“Making my son decide between STEM or Spanish is putting him on a track,” she says. While she wants her children to have specialized education in STEM, she also thinks they’ll be most successful if they start learning a language in elementary school and continue until graduation.

Currently, city schools provide mandatory Spanish language instruction starting in first grade.

Amy Ogden, a French professor at UVA with a sixth grader at Walker, has been encouraging parents to write letters to the school board, Hastings, and Superintendent Rosa Atkins, in opposition to the changes.

“It might seem that we shouldn’t worry if Spanish becomes an elective—offering more choices and looking for new ways to engage students sounds like a good thing,” she wrote to parents. “The core of the problem is that making Spanish optional rather than required shows that the community does not consider foreign-language learning as important as physical education, English, math, science, social studies, or fine arts, all of which are required.”

And making Spanish and STEM mutually exclusive choices could further undermine the language program, she says, because STEM has become so popular across the country, and parents will likely steer their kids toward it instead of Spanish.

“Reduced enrollments means reduced resources, and rather than strengthening the program, the change really risks killing it,” says Ogden.

Lin says he’s in favor of reevaluating the curricula, but he doesn’t think it will solve the achievement gap, which was spotlighted last fall when The New York Times and ProPublica published a story on Charlottesville City Schools’ racial inequities. And as someone from Argentina, he says the school sends a good message by requiring that students learn Spanish.

“To know that all my classmates have to learn the language of my parents and my family, it does something for the immigrant students,” says Lin, who works as a research scholar at UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. “It creates a different kind of culture for the school.”

The more practical reason to require students to learn the language, he says, is because the United States is the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world—second only to Mexico.

School Board Chair Jennifer McKeever says students who opt to take Spanish instead of STEM will still receive the project-based learning that STEM promotes in their core science classes.

“Dr. Hastings is trying to meet the needs of all of our children,” she says, and encourages parents to talk to the principal before pulling their kids out of Walker.

Matthew Gillikin, whose elementary schooler goes to Jackson-Via, has been following the debate at Walker, and says, “It just seems so reactionary.”

Because so many folks have been reeling over information that later changed, he says, “If parents are going to try to advocate, they need to have their facts straight. Ask questions first and then make demands second.”

Corrected April 18 at 9am. We incorrectly reported that parents were incorrect in thinking their students would be required to choose between a Spanish and fine arts elective. Amy Ogden says a March 11 email from the school’s principal said students would only be able to choose one elective—a decision that was later changed to allow for two.