On a recent school day, the sixth-graders in Natalie Lin’s intro to Mandarin class at the Denver Center for International Studies went into drill mode. The group of students who could most quickly — and accurately — write out Chinese characters on pint-sized white boards were rewarded with White Rabbits, chewy vanilla-flavored candies wrapped in edible rice paper.

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Sixth-grader Faith Carbajal, 11, shows her teacher a character in Mandarin in a recent class at DCIS-Montbello.

Among other things, the 17 students in this class — most of whom already speak English and Spanish — were learning how to remember what the characters look like. The character for “little brother,” for instance, resembles two parents, a sidewalk and a little boy running around like crazy and falling down, student Andre Munoz said.

Faith Carbajal, 11, was especially adept with her accent, taking any opportunity to raise her hand and speak Chinese aloud.

“I know most of the world speaks Chinese,” she said after class. “I wanted to learn it. I want to travel to China.”

Foreign language study is entrenched in the culture of DCIS-Montbello, a turnaround school in Far Northeast Denver. But this scene remains an anomaly in many Colorado schools. Even as other states and school districts put a growing premium on K-12 students learning languages other than English to make them more employable, few Colorado districts require foreign language for graduation.

Teachers of what are now commonly dubbed “world languages” fear that a growing emphasis on standardized tests in core subjects is to blame for a lack of clear and cohesive policy around foreign language instruction. They say learning other languages gives students a competitive advantage in a global economy, builds cultural understanding and demonstrates readiness for college-level coursework.

“World languages have been identified by the U.S. State Department as a very important 21st century skill,” said Jefferson County Public Schools world language coordinator Anna Crocker. “We’re losing globally. We’re losing out because in other countries, their students are graduating with one — if not two and three — languages. In a global market, our graduates are at a disadvantage.”

Two separate processes are now underway that could influence the emphasis placed on world languages in Colorado. First, state K-12 officials are in the process of refining graduation guidelines that are expected to be approved in May, though districts would not be required to adopt them. Higher education leaders, meanwhile, are in the midst of tweaking college admissions requirements, which are expected to be vigorously debated in the fall.

What Colorado districts require

About 19 states have some kind of language requirement for high school graduation. Some states have a straight-up requirement for all students, such as New York’s one-year language requirement for students to earn a standard diploma. Other states offer tiered diplomas — meaning the higher-level academic diploma may require learning a language, while another diploma — aimed more at workforce readiness — may not.

In Colorado, by contrast, world language offerings and instruction vary from district to district and school to school.

“The requirements for high school graduation have been 100 percent determined by local control,” said Jo O’Brien, assistant commissioner of strategic priorities and research for the Colorado Department of Education. “The only requirement in statute right now has been and has been for years, half a credit in civics education. Then, it’s jump ball.”

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Samples of Chinese characters in a classroom at DCIS-Montbello

A Graduation Guidelines Council is currently composing recommendations regarding “meet or exceed” high school graduation guidelines to the State Board of Education next month after being in the works for years — and after a delay due to the roll-out of the Common Core State Standards and new state tests.

O’Brien said that the council has agreed that math, literacy, science and social studies will be the four content areas where guidelines for competency or mastery would be established. For other subjects, such as world languages, it would be entirely up to the local community.

Some districts are working on boosting their requirements. Beginning with the class of 2015, Aurora Public Schools will require one unit of credit (equivalent to one year of study) in a foreign language, according to Susan Olezene, director of student achievement for curriculum and professional learning. Several schools, including Vista PEAK Preparatory, require two years.

Not all Colorado schools are headed in this direction, however. A year ago, members of the Eagle Valley High School community protested when the school board laid off three foreign language teachers and replaced them with a computer program called Aventa.

And, like many Colorado school districts, Douglas County does not require foreign language courses as part of its graduation requirements. But that doesn’t mean students don’t enroll in foreign language programs, said Steve Johnson, director of high school education in Dougco.

“One of the things that drive enrollment for foreign language (enrollment)… are entrance requirements for colleges,” Johnson said. “What colleges would love to see is a student taking four years of a language.”

State sets bar at two years foreign language, then lowers to one

Colorado’s public colleges and universities in general followed the lead of the Higher Education Admission Requirements, or HEAR, in 2008. These are minimum college eligibility requirements, but there is a no guaranteed admission under the policy.

Initially the requirements were silent on foreign language, said Matt Gianneschi, deputy executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. But in 2010 the state began requiring two years of world language for someone applying to a baccalaureate degree granting institution. That was later reduced to only one year.

“Most districts have watched those as a kind of guidance for understanding what should be in their high school exit policies,” O’Brien said.

Marty Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language, said more states — while not necessarily setting college admission requirements — are trying to get the word out about the importance of a world language in this way.

“We all know that one year is not going to get you very high on a proficiency scale,” Abbott said.  “But a long sequence of language study is an indicator that a student has the ability to stick with a subject. There is a cumulative angle to it. They look at it as a litmus test for students who can succeed at a college level with college work.”

The minimum higher ed admissions requirements are currently being revised to reflect a changing landscape in Colorado that includes more high school students earning college credit through concurrent enrollment and a growing number of students who speak more than one language without ever having taken a class. Gianneschi said officials are exploring how to handle high school students who are bilingual or trilingual and can demonstrate command of more than one language without having earned credit for it.

Discussions are also centered around evaluating competency versus seat time and understanding which students really need to know additional languages. Take a student who excels at math and science but only speaks English. Should this student be able to bypass foreign language requirements, Gianneschi wonders.

People like Crocker, Jeffco’s world language coordinator, say the need for world language is a no-brainer.

“Graduates from universities who have multi-language skills are being snapped up,” Crocker said. “It’s certainly a competitive edge. That is the big picture. Colorado needs to step up to the plate and get our kids into the market.”

CU-Boulder requires three years of world language

Colorado’s flagship college — the University of Colorado at Boulder — has among the most rigorous foreign language admissions standards. The school’s Minimum Academic Preparation Standards, or MAPS, require more or less foreign language based on the field of study. In environmental design or the College of Music, for instance, an incoming student should have two full years of a single language, said Kevin MacLennan, CU-Boulder’s director of admissions. For a student entering the College of Arts and Sciences, the Leeds School of Business or the journalism and mass communications program, three years is required. In engineering, incoming students should have three years of a single foreign language or two years each in two different languages.

However, the requirements are flexible, MacLennan said. A student with only two years of Spanish, for instance, can still be admitted to the College of Arts and Sciences but he or she will have to take – and pass – a third level Spanish class at CU before graduation.

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DCIS-Montbello sixth-graders Salia Eldridge, left, and Kaylee Jacobs write Chinese characters on a white board during a recent class period.

MacLennan pointed out that in some rural parts of the state there aren’t teachers available to teach higher-level language courses.

“We admit students with deficiencies, but they have to make them up,” he said.

University of Northern Colorado requires one year of world language as part of its admissions requirements. Colorado State University requires students to have two or more years of the same world language in their transcripts, but admissions officials like to see even more. But if a student has a compelling reason he or she did not pursue a second year of foreign languages — maybe the school’s offerings were limited — CSU admissions officials can be flexible, said Jim Rawlins, CSU executive director of admissions.

“While we would even prefer that students take three years, or perhaps start a second non-native language as well instead, two years is what we present as what we want to see,” Rawlins said.

What’s happening in other states

Nearby Utah is on the leading edge of states pushing to incorporate world languages into public school curriculum, in part due to the Mormon faith’s missionary efforts overseas and the premium its lawmakers place on global competitiveness. The New York Times recently documented the state’s efforts, pointing out that nearly half the state’s 41 school districts offer dual immersion programs in which elementary school students spend half the day learning in English and half in a foreign language.

And Connecticut just updated its college admissions requirements for state universities to go into effect in 2015. Students will need two years of foreign language, but three are recommended.

On the flip side, the Detroit News last month reported that foreign language studies could be de-emphasized in Michigan by a bill that would drop it as a high school graduation requirement. Backers say the change would offer more flexibility for students who plan to bypass college for a technical career.

Whatever is happening in Colorado —  from blossoming dual immersion programs at elementary schools — is often led by teachers,   said Toni Theisen, a French teacher in the Thompson school district who is also president of the 13,000-member American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

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Noah Geisel

Theisen said it’s a constant battle for world language teachers to demonstrate to policymakers the value of learning a language in a classroom setting. But she said that Colorado’s foreign language teachers have proven up to the task, taking an active role  in meeting with policymakers, being involved in piloting assessments related to Senate Bill 10-191, the teacher effectiveness policy, and keeping their cause at the fore.

And, they are happy to point out that the 2013 National Language Teacher of the Year, Noah Geisel, is a teacher at Denver’s East High School. While Denver no longer requires foreign language for graduation, there are a range of schools that offer languages ranging from Mandarin to Lakota.

“It’s time for people to get serious, “ Theisen said. “I don’t care how much math or science you know. If you’re only monolingual you’re at a disadvantage.”

Snapshot of world languages in Colorado districts

Adams 12 Five Star Schools

Number of world language teachers:  56, including three at elementary level; 16 at middle school level; and 37 at high school level.

Languages taught: German, French, Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin

Number of students enrolled in foreign language classes: 7,694 and they break down as follows:

  • 5,303 in Spanish
  • 1,170 taking French
  • 921 in German
  • 150 in Arabic
  • 150 in Mandarin Chinese

Graduation requirement: No foreign language requirement; however foreign language can fit under the six credits required in electives or two in arts.

Aurora Public Schools

Number of world language teachers: 34 world language teachers – 20 high school; nine at middle school level; one at the K-8 level; three at K-12 schools; and one at the elementary level.

Languages taught: French, German, Spanish and Chinese

Graduation requirement: No foreign language required for graduation; but the class of 2015 will be required to have one unit of world language.

Boulder Valley School District

Number of world language teachers: 98

Number of students enrolled in foreign language classes: 6,200 at the high school level and 3,100 at the middle school level.

Languages taught: French, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, German, Latin, Arabic, Chinese

Graduation requirement:  10 credits under “Second Language Acquisition” are required for graduation.

Cherry Creek Schools

Number of world language teachers: 114 teachers

Languages taught: Spanish, French, Arabic, German, Japanese, Mandarin and Latin

Graduation requirement: World language is not required but highly encouraged for college-going students.

Colorado Springs District 11

Number of world language teachers: 40

Number of students enrolled in foreign language classes: 3,705

Languages taught: Spanish, French, Chinese, German, Latin, Japanese

Graduation requirement: District 11 has no graduation requirement for world languages, but world languages can be counted as a humanities/electives credit.

Denver Public Schools

Number of world language teachers: 103, not including charter or dual language immersion schools.

Languages taught: Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Lakota.

Graduation requirement: There was a world language requirement between 2007 and 2009 but it was eliminated due to budget constraints. Now, there is no specific world language requirement. Foreign language falls under the academic elective requirements for graduation.

Jeffco Public Schools

Number of world language teachers: 162 secondary teachers (middle and high school).  (This does not include the charter and option schools nor the dual language programs at the elementary level.)

Number of students enrolled in world language classes: 34,919

Languages taught: French, German, Japanese and Spanish in schools; Chinese, Spanish and Russian online.

Graduation requirement: No foreign language requirement.