The Fairfax County School Board held a community meeting this evening, where members of the community could weigh in on the proposed school budget. The majority of the group opined on one of two topics: either continuing world language programs in elementary school, with emphasis on either the immersion programs or the FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary School) program or on saving Strings & Band in the elementary school. I had the opportunity to address the Board, and wanted to share my message, which focused on both..
Esteemed Members of the School Board:
As stewards of Fairfax County’s Education System, I imagine you are struggling with how to ensure that the achievement gap does not widen as a result of the many program reductions and eliminations that you are being asked to consider. There are several programs that I realize are considered expendable, nice–to-have, non-essential parts of the elementary school curriculum. As a parent with students in a Title 1 Elementary school, I wanted to give you a sense as to why I see Band & Strings and Spanish Immersion Programs as important components in addressing the achievement gap.
I think addressing the achievement gap is not just about improving the scores on the reading and math tests that our children take. I think it’s also about offering opportunities for all our children, and especially our at-risk children, to foster confidence and belief in their abilities to learn.
Band & Strings in the elementary schools is one of those programs that does exactly that. Band & Music is one area in elementary school education where you truly have a level playing field. You don’t need to be able to speak English well to feel that you are participating in your learning, and yet you are learning all about teamwork, and you’re getting immediate feedback that your personal efforts and practice time determine your resulting playing ability. You don’t have to be an excellent reader or math student to be able to figure out patterns and clap out the music, and yet you are learning basics in mathematics and reading. And most importantly, you don’t need lots of disposable income to have access to violins, and cellos, and trumpets, and flutes. At Bailey’s, our band and string program is beloved by our students not only because they have great teachers, but because for many of our students, this is an area where they can discover the potential for mastery within themselves. Among the 33 Title 1 Elementary schools that are represented by this Board, the percentage of students receiving Free & Reduced lunch ranges from between 55 to more than 70% of each school’s population. This suggests to me that eliminating the program is to put music playing out of reach, for a significant number of our at-risk students, at a time when they are most eager to learn and most vulnerable to making their minds up as to whether they are failures or learners in school.
At Bailey’s Elementary School, 44% of the population speaks a language other than English, which is comparable to most of the other Title 1 elementary schools in our area. Unlike the other schools, however, Bailey’s offers a Spanish immersion program and for the native Spanish-speaking students who participate in it, this program offers a very effective way of directly reducing the achievement gap. Research has shown that when children are educated in their first language, acquisition of a second language becomes easier. Why? Because their minds have been trained in how to learn in their first language, and having figured out how to learn, they can apply that skill to decipher and learn in the new language. At Bailey’s, our immersion students are spending an average of 10 hours a week learning in Spanish, while the rest of the school day is spent learning in English. Commonsense suggests it must be way easier to learn if you understand what is being said to you, as opposed to guessing. I’ve noticed that by the 3rd grade, most of the children in the Bailey’s immersion program are speaking and reading proficiently in English (and Spanish). Part of this faster learning can also be attributed to the environment of an immersion classroom, where instruction in their native language means that children can actually participate in the lesson, and make and feel good about their contributions, indeed feel like experts and teachers during those classroom times when Spanish is the learning language. Such an environment lays the foundation for intercultural understanding and sends the unspoken message that diversity is respected and valued.