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W&L’s Foreign Language Futures Receives Braitmayer Foundation Grant

A grant from The Braitmayer Foundation will fund a new initiative at Washington and Lee University to establish Chinese language classes in two area high schools.

The pilot program, Foreign Languages Futures (FLF), will provide high school students with low-cost access to high quality instruction while also providing W&L teacher education students with practicum and licensure opportunities. This is W&L’s first grant from the foundation.

The high schools participating are Rockbridge County in Lexington and Parry McCluer in Buena Vista.

“The fact that both the local school systems and W&L will profit from its implementation is like a dream come true,” said Dick Kuettner, director of W&L’s Tucker Multimedia Center and a professor in the romance languages department and the teacher education program. Kuettner will lead the FLF program with Lenna Ojure, associate professor of education and director of W&L’s teacher education program. James Madison University’s Assessment and Research Services will provide an ongoing assessment of FLF’s progress.

According to Kuettner, the need for a program such as FLF lies in the lack of comprehensive world language instruction in rural schools.

“Early language exposure is critical to mastery,” said Kuettner. “Unfortunately, getting early exposure is often only possible in urban areas and suburbs.”

Kuettner said that the fault lies in a vicious cycle. Schools impacted by budget cuts have difficulty affording classes for even traditional languages such as French, German and Spanish, much less non-traditional languages such as Chinese. University students who seek to be K-12 language teachers must have student teaching experience but, without local K-12 language classes, universities in rural locations struggle to enroll future educators.

“These problems feed into each other. Having fewer language teachers leads to fewer language students, which in turn leads to even fewer teachers down the line,” noted Kuettner. “While it hurts rural schools most, the problem is national.”

Kuettner hopes that the FLF program will be a step in ending this cycle. It will also support the principle that rural towns shouldn’t be second-class communities that offer ever-shrinking advantages to their youth.

The FLF program builds on Washington and Lee’s existing support for schools in the Rockbridge County area. W&L already provides more than 300 elementary and middle school students with free, not-for-credit Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and French language instruction  — programs that are offered through local schools’ gifted and enrichment programs.

Due to this previous support, public school administrators approached W&L to help them increase offerings in for-credit, high school-level language classes. In particular, they had a high and persistent demand for non–traditional language instruction — especially Chinese — but no funding. They had tried computerized/online programs that didn’t require a teacher but with poor results.

“When the schools contacted us, I realized we had the ability to help while also solving our own problem,” said Kuettner. “So this is an elegant solution to many problems.”

The Chinese language classes will combine broadcast instructions with in-person mentoring.

In the broadcast portion, W&L will use the latest software technology to telecast a member of W&L’s East Asian languages faculty to the high school classrooms. Classes will be telecast to both high schools interactively and simultaneously from W&L’s Tucker Multimedia Center every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Instead of being lectured by computer programs, the high school students will receive instruction and react to it with their classmates and with the instructor at W&L.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the high school students will work independently at computer lab stations on sophisticated interactive materials under the on-site direction of W&L’s upper-level Chinese language students. Those undergraduates will also provide tutoring sessions.

Kuettner hopes eventually to carry the initiative into other Virginia communities with the aim of setting a national model for other states that find themselves in a similar predicament.

The Braitmayer Foundation is a third-generation family foundation encouraging innovative programs to enhance the quality of education at the pre-college level. It is located in Marion, Mass., and was established in 1964 through a gift from Marian Braitmayer.