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The Daily Tar Heel

Orange County Kids Need to Habla Espanol

School board members restated their commitment to having a full-time Spanish teacher in each of the seven elementary schools Tuesday night.

Currently there is only one full-time Spanish teacher at Grady Brown Elementary School.

The board had already requested three more and added an additional three to the request Tuesday.

It would be easy to write the request off as frivolous.

Yeah, foreign language teachers would be great in an elementary school, but shouldn't we be more worried about reducing class sizes and just getting enough teachers in general?

No.

Adding full-time Spanish teachers to Orange County elementary schools is something that should go along with improving education in more traditional ways.

We've all heard the buzz about smaller class sizes and higher-paid teachers, but those are by no means the only improvements that need to be made.

The demographics of the United States and this area in particular are changing.

It's not reasonable to expect English as a second-language teachers, who are often struggling to just keep students from falling too far behind, to pick up the slack.

In this case, there is an increasing population of Spanish-speaking students.

That's an easily targetable demographic.

While full-time Spanish teachers wouldn't directly help Spanish-speaking students learn English, but they would bridge a potentially huge gap -- one Orange County Schools officials should try to avoid.

There is a natural divide between people who don't speak the same language.

Racial and ethnic tensions already exist in educational environments.

(Even at UNC, where we like to think of ourselves as enlightened and tolerant, we're constantly holding race relations forums to address conflict.)

If elementary school-aged children were taught Spanish, they could better relate to their Spanish-speaking peers, even the ones who speak English well also.

In addition, Spanish-speaking students wouldn't feel so alienated.

They would see their peers learning their first language and so wouldn't be made to feel like complete outsiders.

It would do a lot to get rid of the "us" vs. "them" mentality that's so easy to get into when you encounter someone different from you.

Besides, when children are immersed in a second language at a young age, they often forget much of their first language despite their parents' best efforts.

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Having a full-time Spanish teacher would offer students who speak Spanish as a first language the chance to retain and refine their skills.

That way those students wouldn't have to lose a skill they've already worked so hard to learn.

There is, of course, the nice but unnecessary added benefit of students being able to start learning a second language early.

But that's not where the benefits stop.

Yes, there are budget constraints, and school boards can't get everything on their wish lists.

But Orange County will just have to join the club when it comes to budget constraints.

And full-time Spanish teachers are not items for a wish list.

They are something of a necessity, and Orange County officials should find a way to work them into the county budget.

Columnist Erin Mendell can be reached at mendell@email.unc.edu.

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