Kalamazoo Public Schools Lengthen Foreign Language & Math Classes In Hopes of Boosting Student Achievement

Nora Hilgart-Griff

feaa0c2547cfe4b796dcc2ab49682f08On December 16, 2016, Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Services Cindy Green presented several recommendations to the School Board for changes in the current Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) curriculum. The most dramatic change that would affect KPS high schoolers is the transition of current two-trimester courses to full-year classes. This change will include Algebra I and most third-year language courses: French, Spanish, and Latin.
The aim is that extension of foreign language courses will more completely and thoroughly address the subjects and move students further towards literacy in that language, as well as preparing them for Advanced Placement (AP)  language courses. When it comes to Algebra I, one-third of students in the district take that class in eighth grade, over the entire year, so it only made sense to give those taking it in high school an equivalent learning experience.
Loy Norrix foreign language teachers across the board are excited for the change.
“It’s excellent,” said Spanish teacher Ryan King, “the more time to learn, the better.”
The AP Board strongly recommends that the AP level in any language be the student’s fifth year. That is, the AP Board suggests that the student study a language for four years before taking it at the AP level.
“In KPS, that only works with Spanish–it’s first offered in eighth grade, and then you would need to take it freshman, sophomore, and junior year to meet the AP’s suggestions. Even then, it’s not four full years, since each ‘year’ is only two trimesters each,” continued Latin teacher Barbara Felkel. “We can use that third tri for AP prep. Will it be as good as a fourth year? No, but it’s better than nothing.”
French teacher Rachel Larner agrees.
“I think in a perfect world maybe all classes, but especially language and math, would be full year, because those two, more than others, require background knowledge and are cumulative. If you can’t have a full year in all levels, it makes sense to have it in three. The learning is less sporadic that way,” said Larner.
While AP Language scores have not been bad in recent years (the AP Spanish average is about 65% passing with a score of 3 or above each year, according to Spanish teacher Christina Holmes), language teachers see definite room for improvement. They hope the new class length will help them achieve this. AP language classes tend to focus less on the mechanics of a language (grammar, vocabulary, verb conjugation) and more on functioning in the actual language; cultural knowledge, literature, etc. Larner describes it as “an English class, but in another language.”
“This will be a great opportunity for kids to feel confident coming into AP, which is more about literature and culture than learning expressive language on various topics. With one more trimester of Spanish III, we can focus on grammar and beef up their vocab skills,” said Spanish teacher Christina Holmes.
While many of the language teachers wish students started their foreign language career in middle school, many Algebra students get to do just that. Kalamazoo Public Schools requires Algebra I, II and Geometry for graduation, with an additional math classes to fulfill credit requirements. About one third of district students complete the entirety of Algebra I during their eighth grade year. However, the two thirds of students who take the math class their freshman year have a rather different experience; a two-trimester class instead of a full year. Perhaps consequently, Algebra I is one of the district’s most-failed classes, and often leads to struggles meeting graduation requirements because it must be passed before continuing to Geometry and Algebra II. KPS hopes that extending the class to three trimesters will help rectify this issue. However, Algebra I teacher Brad Schmidt isn’t sure this is the ideal solution.
“I see why administration feels it’s necessary to extend the class; more time to understand concepts leads to better passing rates. However, the new way doesn’t allow for as many electives, and imagine if a kid fails: when do they make it up? The next year? That’s very difficult,” said Schmidt. With these courses filling more trimester block
But how else to offer kids the full year experience? Schmidt has a suggestion. “If students took Algebra 1A for their whole eighth grade year, and then B in two trimesters freshman year, it would solve both problems,” he explains.
Though Schmidt’s idea won’t be coming to pass any time soon, administration will likely review the effectiveness of the trimester switch on student achievement after a few years, and in two years the effects will be evident in the AP scores of students who took a three-trimester third year language. Either way, the change is a reminder that Kalamazoo Public Schools is constantly seeking to improve their achievement and find solutions–whether they work or not is yet to be seen.feaa0c2547cfe4b796dcc2ab49682f08