Even though Missouri, and many high schools, don't require it for high school graduation, the number of public school students taking foreign language classes has more than doubled the past two decades.
The number of Missouri students learning Spanish, French, German and even languages like Russian, Japanese and Chinese has grown from 89,684 in the 1991-1992 school year to 192,785 last school year, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The growth was not a sudden spike but rather a steady climb, St. Charles County educators said. Today, more students than ever are electing to take foreign language, as well as world history, to better their chances at earning early college credit and beefing up high school resumes.
"The one change we've seen in the past 10 years is an increase in the number of students taking advanced placement world language courses," said Chris Greiner, director of student learning for the Francis Howell School District. "As a greater percentage of kids have become college bound, they're looking for that course work that will help prepare them to be college and career ready."
Schools have broadened their catalogs of humanities courses like foreign language and world history to mirror an increasingly international college and career environment.
"We are more and more a global society, and it's very important that students understand and grow their understanding of different cultures and opportunities," said Jackie Floyd, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Fort Zumwalt School District.
Following that train of thought, Duchesne High School this year expanded its world history curriculum. Instead of cramming ancient civilization to modern history in a freshman course, those students now learn about ancient man to the French Revolution, and sophomores study world history from the 1800s to modern day.
"We decided to become a little better rounded and that we would slow down so that kids would get a better understanding of history and how it works for the entire world rather than just being Euro-centric," Duchesne Principal Fritz Long said.
Duchesne in recent discontinued its German language classes, but Long said enrollment in French and Spanish classes has remained steady. Students are taking those classes at high levels and more are staying in the courses for all four years of high school. Which is why the Wentzville School District this year added advanced placement courses for Spanish, French and German. Students who take the AP courses and score high enough on an exam can earn college credit hours or test out of college requirements for foreign language, thereby saving money.
"I think students stay in languages longer because they can get more college credit and it gives them a leg up when they get to college," said Jennifer Allen, Wentzville assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
Wentzville students could begin to get that leg up even earlier. Beginning next semester, the district will offer Spanish language learning opportunities to its youngest students. The district recently partnered with the International Language Center and the Brunetti School of Language to offer after-school Spanish courses to students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Lisa Galli, who owns ABC Daycare and Learning Centers throughout St. Charles County, has exposed youngsters to foreign language for at least a decade. She has included Spanish in her preschool curriculum consistently for the past 10 years. She began the program not because of parental requests, but because she heard early exposure helps students when they take comprehensive foreign language courses in high school.
"I've started tracking and it seems like kids retain more the more you teach them under the age of 5," she said. She used to limit Spanish lessons to colors, numbers and shapes but has made the curriculum more conversation-based in recent years.
"The program we do now is much more intensive. We're teaching them sentences and how to answer and word association," she said.
But do years of international exposure and language pay off? Joe Parisi, Lindenwood University dean of day admissions, said dedication to a topic and risk will likely catch the eye of colleges.
"Right now we're seeing a trend of students delving more and more into challenging curriculum, not just in English or foreign language and history but across the board," he said. "Principals, counselors and teachers are challenging their students to separate themselves from the norm."
Students are taking foreign language and history longer as a strategic move for college and beyond, he said. In terms of classes, students are "thinking about what's next, rather than how do I get them to end."
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