WASHINGTON – Maryland is home to the nation’s third-highest percentage of foreign-born college graduates and should capitalize on the diversity of language abilities, according to a 2009 report of the Preservation of Heritage Language Skills Task Force.
The task force, authorized by the 2008 Maryland General Assembly, made four recommendations: to award high school foreign language credit by exam, increase immersion programs in schools, expand teacher certification options and enhance English speaking learning programs for foreign-born adults.
“The main challenges we face in assuring that Maryland benefits from these skills are leadership, coordination and innovation — not taxpayer dollars,” said Sen. James C. Rosapepe, D-Prince George’s, co-sponsor of the task force legislation.
Legislative action isn’t necessary, Rosapepe said, and this innovation can occur at the local level among school systems and communities.
Montgomery County has led the way with seven, dual-language, immersion programs. Prince George’s County has two and Baltimore opened its first, a language immersion charter school, last year. The task force hopes the idea soon expands to 10 school systems.
“They are in demand, we always have people who want to get into the programs,” said Maria Flores of Prince George’s language programs. “We use the lottery process. We only have so many spaces that we can’t take them all.”
Though popular, roadblocks include funding, finding qualified staff and translating curriculum into foreign languages. Prince George’s County proposed three new programs last year, but has to wait for funding, Flores said.
“The challenges are sometimes finding teachers that are elementary certified and who are fluent in the language, because our immersion programs don’t have a special curriculum. It is the regular Montgomery County Public Schools curriculum, it’s just taught in the target language,” said Judith Klimpl, supervisor of foreign language programs in the county.
Obtaining certified teachers was an obstacle in 2007 for Baltimore City’s new school. It had an ambitious goal: offering more than one target language. Its programs include Chinese, Spanish, French and Russian languages.
“We have teachers coming from around the world. Some areas the teachers are educated, are dedicated, but teaching certifications don’t exist. We are asking the state to give them time to go through the certification process and give them conditional certificates,” said Baltimore International Academy Principal Elena Lokounia.
The certification process prevented Lokounia’s academy from getting its teaching staff in place until days before the school year started.
“We don’t want to diminish the certification, certification is very important,” said Bill Reinhard with the Maryland State Department of Education. “But there are ways of speeding certification along.”
Providing flexibility in teaching certification, the task force hopes, could help schools utilize the language talents of first-, second- or third- generation Americans.
Those who work in these schools say the benefits are worth the effort. Data from Montgomery County shows that children in immersion language programs do as well as or better than their peers in standard curriculum programs.
Josh Kurtz, whose daughters Zoe and Genevieve participated in Spanish immersion in Takoma Park, is pleased with their ability to strike up a conversation in a foreign language or comfortably communicate during a trip abroad.
“This was the best and really only opportunity for them to have this experience,” Kurtz said.
Principal Kona-Facia Netay oversees the Robert Goddard French Immersion School in Prince George’s County. She has been so pleased with the results that she helped start the Baltimore International Academy, hoping to bring the same opportunities to Baltimore, where demographics are similar to the 74 percent African-American enrollment at her school.
“I’m a linguist myself,” Netay said, “and I’ve watched the progress at the Robert Goddard French Immersion School. Language just opens their minds and children perform very well.”