Flailing limbs, choppy syllables and laughter filled a classroom at Wichita's Gordon Parks Academy. Sixth-grade students tried to mimic the actions and words of three gymsuit-clad people performing a calisthenics routine on a video.
This is Lijun Zhu's Chinese class, the Wichita district's only middle-school Chinese program.
The Wichita district is expanding its Chinese program at five high schools and at Gordon Parks.
But in Kansas and nationwide, many schools are cutting foreign language programs, especially at the elementary and middle school levels, in the face of budget shortfalls and pressure to do better on math and reading tests.
Zhu started at Gordon Parks, a K-8 school, this year after her position as an elementary school Chinese teacher in the Pittsburg district was cut.
Although experts agree pre-pubescent children are best able to learn a second language, classes below ninth-grade level have been hardest hit in the past decade, according to a national survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics released last month.
Kansas' foreign language standards state that a cohesive K-12 program is best, but only three districts in the state follow it. All are in northern Kansas.
No Wichita elementary schools offer foreign language classes. Elementary students can find a foreign language class only in the district's two K-8 magnet schools, Gordon Parks and Horace Mann.
Suburban districts, such as Maize and Haysville, start offering exploratory Spanish classes at seventh grade.
One-third of schools in the national survey said federal requirements under No Child Left Behind, which ties a school's success to scores on math and reading standardized tests, hampered their ability to offer foreign language class.
Pressure to expand instruction time for the tested subjects has left less time for all other subjects, especially art, physical education, music and foreign language, educators said.
In the Wichita district, the elementary school schedule is so structured teachers often have only 90 minutes a week to devote to science or social studies.
And when budget reduction decisions are made, principals know they will be scrutinized on how well their students read and write English, not another language.
"When foreign language teachers look at how much pressure there is to support assessed subjects, they feel pretty low on the totem pole, whether or not it's really on the chopping block," said Phyllis Farrar, the only employee at the Kansas State Department of Education's World Language department.
The rare Chinese middle-school language program is a priority at Gordon Parks because the school needs to offer two language classes to attain its goal of International Baccalaureate World School status, said Denise Seguine, the district's chief academic officer.
More than 7,000 of Wichita's 50,000 students enrolled in a foreign language class at the beginning of the school year.
No Advanced Placement foreign language classes are offered. Colleges often offer credit to students who do well on Advanced Placement tests.
District administrators in Wichita said they are unable to provide an accurate year-to-year comparison of the number of language classes offered or students enrolled in them because no specific records have been kept.
Foreign language disappeared as a component of elementary school gifted programs by 2002. Eleven elementary schools also offered foreign language to all students until then, according to Eagle archives.
Those classes disappeared in a round of budget cuts, Seguine said.
Communication and functioning in a global economy are key to Kansas' — and Wichita's schools' — push for 21st-century skills.
"With the global emphasis, there's a lot of reasons to add an Arabic language class," Seguine said. "But in the current situation, it's not a time we can add it."
The district has cut roughly $34 million of its $600 million budget since January 2009, and more cuts are expected.
The national survey by the Center for Applied Linguistics found the number of elementary schools offering foreign language instruction dropped from 31 percent in 1997 to 25 percent in 2008.
Kansas educators would love to reach that 25 percent, the state's Farrar said. Only 7 percent of Kansas elementary schools offer foreign language classes, she said.
"There have been a few decreases (this year), which is disappointing because we don't have much to start with," she said.
About 13 percent of Kansas middle schools offer foreign language classes, compared with 58 percent nationally — a decrease from 75 percent in 1997.
But in high schools, Farrar said, Kansas exceeds the national average — 99 percent, compared with 91 percent nationally. Kansas high schools are required to offer the courses to keep state accreditation.
For students to reach high proficiency levels, schools should develop a comprehensive language program from K-12, according to Kansas standards for foreign language courses.
Farrar said three districts in Kansas meet this standard — Blue Valley in the Overland Park area and two rural districts in north-central Kansas, Logan and Rock Hills, which is in Mankato.
The brain is wired to quickly acquire languages before puberty, she said. Most European countries and developing industrial nations, such as China and India, require students start studying a foreign language by age 10.
Lack of resources
Kansas school leaders show interest in starting foreign language programs, but lack resources to train the teachers, Farrar said.
Most foreign language teachers trained in Kansas learn how to teach at the high school level, and they're not comfortable teaching elementary students.
Farrar said that leads to a "catch-22" because so few districts offer an elementary class for aspiring language teachers to train in.
Farrar said she tries to recruit foreign language teachers from Spain and China through a visiting teachers program, as she did Zhu.
Nationwide, a low number of schools — about 15 percent — are interested in starting foreign language programs, said Nancy Rhodes, director of the Foreign Language Education Division at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Applied Linguistics.
"They're looking at foreign language as a frill," she said, adding that in 1997, about half of schools surveyed expressed interest in offering more foreign languages. "We're in the 21st century and a globalized economy. We're talking about developing world-class students."
One way to elevate foreign language is to give it a true core subject status, such as reading, math and science, Rhodes said.
"It comes down to priorities," she said. "They focus on math and reading — that's the priority."
The consequences of students not doing well on state exams, from a school's reputation to being required under federal law to replace its staff, make many educators fear that foreign language takes time from reading and math, Farrar said.
Such pressure led Kelly Dunkelberger to stop teaching German at Wichita's Northwest High School about five years ago. He now provides technical support at East High School.
"It was constantly a battle to fight for numbers for a full-time position," he said.
The entry-level German class enrollment was cut in half when students needed a fine arts credit to graduate. They were putting off language, which remained an elective credit, Dunkelberger said.
His leaving meant the end of the German program because the principal decided not to fill the position.
"I was really sad to see it go," he said, adding that the language gave some students a chance to explore their heritage.
Educators don't dispute students can improve in math and reading by learning a foreign language.
Wichita's Horace Mann Dual Language Magnet School is an example, Farrar said. Compared with similar schools with high poverty levels, she said Horace Mann's math and reading scores are higher.
"The main difference is it is taught in Spanish," Farrar said. "It makes them smart."
Still, literacy in English is a school's first responsibility, Seguine said. Students who don't know how to read are the most likely to drop out.
For the future
Seventh-grader Denia Richardson said she chose Chinese because she is curious about China's culture.
"A lot of people make fun of Chinese people," she said.
To classmate Sychia Moore, Chinese is easy — or at least easier than its reputation among American students.
"Learning step-by-step makes it easier," she said.
Though Zhu's class is principally a language class, she said it's also about giving students a greater understanding of the world.
"Culture and language cannot be separated," said Zhu, whose colorful classroom includes maps of China and books on the Chinese zodiac.
Last week, she included culture in her lessons by discussing traditional Chinese breakfasts as the high school students practiced food vocabulary in a distance learning program.
"I need them to know the purpose — know the economic relationship with China and the United States and how that relationship is closer," she said. "Chinese language in the future will help get them a good career."
Reach Lori Yount at 316-268-6269 or firstname.lastname@example.org.