A review of the Verona Area School District’s World Language program shows it falls short of student proficiency and lacks a “clear overarching district vision” for meeting that goal.

The review, conducted by a panel of three foreign language educators from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, was designed to measure student proficiency and determine how the district can grow and improve it. And Monday, Jan. 6, the school board and administrators discussed what the next steps would be accomplish that.

District director of curriculum and instruction Ann Franke, director of bilingual programs and instructional equity Laurie Burgos and Verona Area High School Language Chair Beth Rodriguez-Strizic are will go over the review in detail over the next few weeks and bring recommendations back to the school board in March.

Among the suggestions recommended by presenter Paul Sandrock are added professional development and having one person in charge of the program.

Sandrock also suggested the district to build on its strengths in the TWI and dual language programs to create a vision with consistency for all students, regardless of when specific languages are available to them.

The board had asked for the study as the middle schools prepare to add Chinese to their language options, and the district moves toward having its language curriculum match at both schools.

The district asked the reviewers to provide feedback on whether the district was developing “appropriate” levels of language proficiency in its students and whether teachers are being given the guidance they need in curriculum planning to create language proficiency.

The answer to both of those questions is no, Sandrock told the board.

The goal of the review wasn’t to fix the program for the district, he explained, but to give the district the “bigger picture” of the program.

“We really got a good view of the program that we want to reflect back to you, and just really dig into to every aspect of the program,” Sandrock said. “It may not present answers to all of your questions, but our goal was to frame various issues for your consideration.”

Sandrock and the two other reviewers, Donna Clementi of Appleton and Brandon Locke of Anchorage, Alaska, reviewed lesson plans and tests from district educators prior to coming to Verona for three days in October to observe and speak with teachers, students and parents about the language program.

The district also got plenty of commendations from the review. Strong support for language learning from parents and good rapport between language students and teachers were two that stuck out to reviewers.

The district boasts high participation in its language programs in comparison to other schools, Sandrock said, with 60 percent of middle schoolers enrolled in world language and 70 percent for high school, in comparison with the 31 percent national average.

The district also offers four languages at VAHS: Spanish, German, French and American Sign Language, which Sandrock said was impressive for a school district of 5,500. Most times, he said, it’s considered good when a district of 35,000 students offers three choices.

“You are definitely promoting and providing opportunities more than many districts across the state and the nation,” he said.

Reaching proficiency

Many of the recommendations provided to the district involve increasing proficiency in its World Language students.

The way to do that is to design the curriculum backward from the Wisconsin Seal of Biliteracy’s requirements, using the state’s high standard of language proficiency to set proficiency targets for each grade level, Sandrock said.

That might require having language start at a younger age or eliminating the Exploratory Wheel for sixth graders to allow them to take a full year of language, rather than just nine weeks.

The district’s World Language program is not at a point where many of its students could achieve the Seal of Biliteracy from the curriculum alone, he said.

“If that is the goal, then to plan backwards by grade and say, ‘By grade 3, by grade 5, by grade 8, by grade 10, by grade 12, this is how we can build towards it and not have these gaps of plateauing and catchup,” Sandrock said.

Another thing the district needs to do to increase proficiency in students is making sure the teachers have consistency in curriculum and achievement targets through professional development, he said, rather than relying on each teacher’s best intentions.

“There’s challenges in the curriculum of knowing, what is my target?” he said. “If we were here as a brand new teacher, what guidance would we have? Yes, it would be a lot of collaboration with my colleagues, but that’s not always easily facilitated if I’m at a different school, if I’m teaching a different language, if I’m teaching a different grade level.”

Unequal access

One of the findings from the ACTFL’s report was that there is not equal access to language from grades K-12.

K-5 students have the ability to enroll in the Two-Way Immersion program, which teaches in both English and Spanish at Glacier Edge and Sugar Creek elementary schools, or Verona Area International School, which splits its instruction between English and Mandarin Chinese. But for students not enrolled in either program, Sandrock said, there’s not a language option open to them.

“If you are in the TWI program … if you are at the Verona Area International School, you have access to a great elementary language learning program,” he said. “If you’re not in those schools, you don’t. There was a very strong cry to say, ‘Could you figure out a way to make some language program … could there be something available for those students as well?’”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.