School system tweaking German language program

School system tweaking German language program

November 21st, 2010 by Kelli Gauthier in Volkswagen

Staff Photo by Allison Carter/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Nov 19, 2010 - Friday at Brown Academy Tammy Collins, center, a German teacher, teaches first-graders Lea Engel, left, and Merten Prasse a German lesson. The German English-Language Learner program was put into effect because of the number of Germans Volkswagen brought to the Chattanooga area.

Staff Photo by Allison Carter/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

Hamilton County Schools has a month or so to find a new way to teach German to children of Volkswagen employees who eventually plan to return home.

Until this point, German students in several public schools have been pulled out of class for at least an hour a day to be given German language instruction. The program, designed to keep students from being behind academically when they move back to Germany, was part of the deal negotiated by Volkswagen and city and county officials.

But the state Department of Education has told Hamilton County school officials that they need to change the way the students are taught German. The department said it expects a new system to be implemented by January.

School officials said they were not involved in agreements to provide the program in the first place.

"By the time it had been promised, we had six weeks to get a program together before we had German students show up on our doorstep," schools spokeswoman Danielle Clark said.

"We knew this would be a short-term fix," added Karla Riddle, magnet school director.

Tennessee Department of Education officials went along with the program initially so the school system could honor the agreement with Volkswagen, but they now have given the district options for a new approach.

"It's just, you run into a lot of issues ... because you're not providing those services to other students," said Department of Education spokeswoman Amanda Maynard Anderson.

Officials suggested options such as an after-school program, classes on Saturday or a German heritage class, all without using state or federal money, Anderson said.

german immersion

Local school administrators said they want the hastily created German enrichment classes to shape future foreign language instruction in Hamilton County Schools.

For instance, at Brown Academy, where about 50 German students are enrolled, the district is piloting a two-way immersion program in which students in prekindergarten through first grade hear a lesson in English, then a similar lesson in German.

German teacher Tammy Collins originally was pretty skeptical, but she now calls the program "a wonderful success." Whether she's teaching math or English, the students usually understand her instruction and usually answer back in German, she said.

She said the American students even raise their hands to answer in German more often then their German counterparts.

"It works just like the research says it does," she said. "It's incredible. I think it's sort of a miraculous thing."

Alex Busbe, an American first-grader at Brown, said his German lessons are tough, but he's glad for them.

"German is hard because you have a lot of things on your mind that you're thinking of," the 7-year-old said. "It's really useful to visit other countries and understand what they're saying because you've been studying it."

Brown parent Marty Lowe said his kindergarten son, Mason, teaches him and his wife German vocabulary.

"He'll say, 'Daddy, do you know what 'cup' is in German?' Lowe said. "He's very engaged. Why not give them the opportunity at this age? ... The more they're given, the more they soak up and use."

GERMAN classes

Hamilton County Schools has hired seven teachers, or about one for every 20 students, to provide German language instruction to German students. The system has 38 teachers giving English as a second language instruction to about 1,500 other students, 65 percent of them native Spanish speakers. That's one teacher for every 40 students. School administrators insist that most of the German language teachers also teach German classes to American students, so the seven are teaching about 600 students. They also say comparing the German enrichment program to ESL is unfair because ESL is for language acquisition and both groups receive most of their core instruction in English, officials said.

The idea at Brown is to grow the program each year until every grade at the elementary school operates a two-way immersion program, Principal Lea Ann Burk said.

"We're trying to get the biggest bang for our buck," she said. "We wanted to make sure our American students got the benefit of being with the Germans, too, not just the Germans being with the Americans."

Riddle, who also heads the German program for Hamilton County, said the school system hopes to move toward more dual-immersion programs, whether or not they're in German.

The officials believe the German students' enrollment has peaked and will begin declining in about a month, Riddle said.

State legislators have introduced at least two bills that would require the Tennessee Board of Education to develop a statewide curriculum to teach foreign language all the way through elementary school, Riddle said.

"German happens to be of interest right now. ... We'll do Spanish eventually," she said.

The program is "always going to be tweaked," she said. "We need for our students to develop language skills in order for them to be competitive."

Contact Kelli Gauthier at or 423-757-6249. Follow her on Twitter at