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The brick building at the heart of a village town in Great Barrington, Mass., had been abandoned for months. It was once an elementary school until it was shut down six years ago due to funding cuts. It housed administrative offices for some time, but for nearly a year, the building has just been sitting there — a vacant, aging waste of space.
That is, until this summer.
A month ago, an office suite and a first-floor classroom of the former Housatonic Elementary School building became the new home to a pilot program that focuses on literacy and tolerance. In the program, called Berkshire Resources for the Integration of Diverse Groups and Education (BRIDGE), children ages 2 to 11 and their families participate in hands-on activities while teacher volunteers give instructions in Spanish and English.
“I designed curriculum to teach diversity and tolerance,” said Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, a Waldorf teacher who is the executive director and co-founder of BRIDGE. “It's all about trying to be multicultural.”
But this is more than a story about a program reviving an abandoned building. BRIDGE represents one of a few programs seeking to push multilingual learning at a time when the economy has forced so many schools to abandon such programs — programs that are supposed to be preparing American children to be global citizens in the 21st century.
It is not news that elementary foreign language programs have been sliding downhill for years, particularly in public schools. Results from a recent Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) survey found that the number of elementary schools offering foreign languages in the United States declined from 31 percent to 25 percent between 1997 and 2008. Public schools had a 9-percent drop in that 10-year period.
Out of all the languages offered in the nation’s elementary schools, Spanish and French continue to dominate. In 10 years, the number of elementary schools teaching Spanish jumped to 88 percent from 79 percent. Still, schools have had to cut so many of these programs due to budget constraints, and proponents have been battling officials who categorize language programs like art classes, as extracurricular activities.
But innovative approaches to learning have allowed some language programs to launch and thrive even in tough times. For example, California’s Newhall School District employed a program this summer that trains teachers to blend language arts with science and social studies content. The teaching style, known as Guided Language Acquisition Development (GLAD), reaches English-language learners by putting them in small groups to design charts, sing chants and do other interactive language-based activities.
BRIDGE also uses various sensory activities to promote learning in young minds. Hampton VanSant realized that she could engage students by integrating bilingual instruction with an interactive learning approach.
In three two-week sessions, the 15 kids in the program play musical instruments, practice yoga, learn about art, make felt puppets and knit, among other activities — hands-on learning helps them develop their brains, Hampton VanSant said. For three hours a day, four days a week, the kids participate in these lessons taught in English and Spanish.
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