Home Back to School Back-to-School 2019: Stem & foreign language – A delicate balance

Back-to-School 2019: Stem & foreign language – A delicate balance

Schools are thriving to stress both

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child learning robotics
Understanding high-technology concepts such as robotics are skills now being taught in Texas schools to improve students’ career prospects in a global, digital economy. Educators also say learning another language should go hand in hand with teaching science, technology, engineering and math skills. File photo

Area schools are balancing science, technology, engineering and math programs with dual-language and language-immersion studies to better prepare students for a global, digital workplace.

While STEM courses receive emphasis at many middle and high school campuses, foreign-language skills dominate preschool and elementary levels, both public and private.

“There is always a tension in terms of all the things students are supposed to learn in (kindergarten through 12th grade) and the time they have to learn them,” said Ann David, a professor at University of the Incarnate Word’s Dreeben School of Education.

“Currently, there is a lot of rhetoric about STEM being necessary for students to get a good job, but the numbers don’t always bear that out,” she said. “I’ve also seen a trend to stress the ability to be culturally aware, to be able to communicate across different cultures. Students who are well-prepared to communicate orally, in writing, in person and online in a digital environment are students who are prepared to succeed. You can get that ability to communicate in language immersion or in a STEM curriculum.”

There usually isn’t a standard curriculum for STEM or language immersion, David said. Most public school districts have studies focusing on both, but the weight may vary.

David said exceptions might be the new CAST — Center for Applied Science and Technology — network of campuses in San Antonio, Southwest and East Central independent school districts. The in-district, specially accented charter high schools were originally spearheaded by H-E-B, Tech Bloc and community partners.

“Those are examples of curricula with particular focus. Otherwise, STEM or language-immersion curriculum could mean involving different approaches at different schools, even at the BASIS or KIPP charter networks,” David added.

Alamo Heights Independent School District established one of the region’s earliest Spanish immersion programs more than 20 years ago. The model, created for English-speaking pupils in 1998, runs from first through fifth grade, when Spanish learners merge with English-as-a-second-language students. Superintendent Dana Bashara, who helped create the curriculum, pioneered the method.

STEM is also important, and the district sponsors aerospace learning, including a rocketry project.

At Providence Catholic School, coexistence is key.

Assistant Principal Elise Denoux said, “Our approach to curriculum is the whole child.”

“Our faculty does a lot of reflection and collaboration about encouraging critical thinking in STEM and foreign-language arts and fine arts. Both sides are very important, but our diploma plans can be a little more specialized than public schools,” Denoux said. “We introduce Latin, French and Spanish in middle school, and students can choose which to study in high school. A lot of students interested in STEM careers will choose Latin to help them with the roots of scientific words.”

The idea is to make students caring, responsible citizens.

“The Sisters of Divine Providence have a very pastoral approach to their ministry and the needs of the community, so our focus is not only on content, but also on how our students are going to be better stewards of the world,” Denoux added.

Jennifer Wivagg, Keystone School’s director of innovation and learning and acting head of middle school, agreed it’s vitally important STEM and language programs are taught.

While Keystone doesn’t offer language immersion, pupils take at least three and usually four years of language.

“Our focus is on core academics. Many colleges can still be very traditional – they are still looking for English, math, science and history proficiency,” Wivagg said. “We do more STEM in our lower and middle school. We have a rocketry program and computer science AP course and robotics clubs, but there are only so many courses kids have the hours to take.”

She added, “In education circles, I see some tension between teaching computer-programming languages and foreign languages. The tech sector definitely is trying to teach more programming, but I don’t think the foreign-language requirement is going to fall away, either.”

In 2013, Texas was one of the first states to recognize computer coding as meeting the high school foreign-language requirement.

The International Academy of San Antonio, a small, private K-5 school set to open this fall on the North Side, specifically advertises “trilingual instruction,” with dual-language classes in English and Spanish on alternate days weekly, and coding instruction incorporated in the curriculum through specialized technology.

“Coding is the language of the 21st century,” Head of School Raúl Hinojosa said.

At the Pineapple School preschools, Spanish language immersion is fundamental, and the earlier the better, with programs for infants, toddlers, 2-year-olds and tykes up to prekindergarteners.

Teachers speak only Spanish.

“Children are born with the ability to hear the sounds of every language, but as they age they lose some of that,” said school co-owner and curriculum director Susan Carvajal. “We begin at 3 months, and research shows us the optimum time to learn language peaks around 10 months, up to age 6.”

Carvajal said studying two tongues simultaneously helps develop better attentiveness and cognitive flexibility, plus preparing pupils for the global environment. STEM is also important, she added.

“We use nature in exploratory, hands-on collaborative projects that go hand in hand with STEM skills. One thing we don’t do is computer tech. I think young children have way too much screen time, and they need time to be children,” she added.

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