EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — A high school student presented an impassioned plea to the Egg Harbor Township Board of Education earlier this month to reinstate second-language instruction for the district’s youngest students.
The district cut four teachers about eight years ago for the program for first, second and third-grade students.
“I think that’s completely unacceptable,” EHTHS student Jarod Wille told the board at the Dec. 12 board meeting.
He compared young children to sponges, naturally soaking up languages.
“It’s crucial at that age to learn a language,” he said. “It’s important to learn a second language at an early age, or else for the rest of your life you will be delayed.”
School Superintendent Kim Gruccio said after the meeting that she agrees completely with the student and was supportive of everything he had to say, but said the district would not be able to spend the money to reinstate the program.
“We can’t afford it,” she said.
According to Michele Schreiner, the supervisor of world languages for the district, the program for the youngest students began in the early 2000s.
“Due to a budget crisis in 2009, four positions were eliminated,” she said. They were the four Spanish teachers for first, second and third grades. Contacted at school after the meeting, she said it is unlikely the district could reinstate the program.
“Four positions would be extremely expensive,” she said.
According to Schreiner, Egg Harbor Township still has the most extensive world language program in Atlantic County. All students have Spanish classes each year for fourth, fifth and sixth grade, and at seventh grade, French is introduced as an option. By high school, the district offers Spanish, French, German and Latin.
She said Latin and German are extremely popular options at the high school.
The district also offers a heritage Spanish program starting in fifth grade and continuing through high school for students whose families speak Spanish at home. Instead of focusing on basic grammar and vocabulary as the introductory classes for English speakers do, the heritage classes seek to improve Spanish literacy skills, much like English classes do for native English speakers.
“It’s the same focus, but in Spanish,” she said.
The language programs in the district are proficiency based, Schreiner said, meaning they seek to teach the kids to communicate in real life from the start, “so they’re learning how to speak, not just learning about verbs.”
Wille was at the board meeting to be recognized for his participation in the Stockton University Hackathon, along with several of his classmates in computer science. He made his comments during the public portion of the meeting, and was one of the few students who stuck around until the end.
He told the board that he speaks English and German, and is studying Spanish at Egg Harbor Township High School. He maintains that learning languages is important for students, and that it will become more important in the future.
Members of the public began to applaud his comments, but then tapered off, seemingly unsure of the protocol. The applause resumed with the encouragement of school board President Lou Della Barca, who said Wille did a great job.
One of his teachers, German teacher Matt Guenther, said after the meeting that the township has become an immensely linguistically diverse area, with 54 different languages spoken in students’ homes throughout the school district.
Posted studies indicate close to 15 percent of Atlantic County households speak Spanish at home, and information from the Census Bureau indicates that more than a quarter of the households in the county speak a language other than English at home.
“This part of Atlantic County is a very, very diverse area,” said Schreiner. “That’s one of the things that’s so wonderful about Egg Harbor Township.”