Two Years of Foreign Language Added to WHS Graduation Requirements

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The School Committee approved the addition of taking a world language to the graduation requirements for Watertown High School students.

The world language requirement was added to the Watertown High School Program of Studies. Beginning with Class of 2028 (current eigth graders), students will have to pass two years of the same world language (also known as foreign language).

WHS Principal Joel Giacobozzi said that the change brings Watertown in line with MassCore, the state’s recommended program of study intended to align high school coursework with college and workforce expectations.

“There are reasons for this, the least of which is Massachusetts has set the floor for graduation. All of our state schools have set that as the minimum requirement for our students to be able to get into those colleges and universities,” Giacobozzi said. “We, as a district, have been focused on world language and we have committed our resources to that commitment and we believe this honors that commitment.”

He added that Watertown has made strides to encourage and reward students for learning a second (or more) language by having them take the test to get the Seal of Biliteracy (22 percent of the Class of 2023 qualified), and the district now teaches Spanish in the elementary schools beginning in kindergarten. The first group of students to take part in this program are now in seventh grade.

Looking at other schools in the area, Giacobozzi said that only one member of the Middlesex League does not have the world language requirement.

Currently, a vast majority of Watertown students already meet the requirement. In the Class of 2023, all but 17 took at least two years of a world language, Giacobbozzi said, which is about 10 percent of the class. Some chose to take other classes in which they were more interested, and a small number had class requirements based on a disability.

The new policy has exemptions for students who cannot meet the requirement. The decision would be up to the principal, working with guidance counselors and, if applicable, the special education team. Some of these exemptions, which were included in the memo to the School Committee, could be:

(1) Newcomer Multilingual Learners (ML) who do not have room in their schedules to take English coursework and World Languages Coursework. These students could also prove their bilingual abilities through prior transcript coursework and/or Seal of Biliteracy assessments.

(2) Students who are enrolled in a Career, Technical & Engineering (CTE) pathway and do not have the capacity to complete their schedule with two years of a language requirement.

(3) Rare exceptions related to Communications disabilities via an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which are recommended by the Special Education Team and are specifically coded as severe-language-based disability, or until it is deemed unjust for a student.

Adam Silverberg, the district’s World Language Coordinator, said that exemptions will be given only after students make a real effort to take a language.

“We want students to (take World Language),” Silverberg said. “Please try. It’s for your benefit. If you have given it a shot, and we have pushed you to give it more than one shot, and it still is not working (and) this is no longer fair for you — that is what I think would be a reason for an exemption.”

School Committee member Amy Donohue said she strongly supported the new graduation requirement, in part because she wants to make sure Watertown High School grads meet the requirements to qualify to get into the Massachusetts State College. She also said it aligns with the district’s emphasis on world languages.

“Watertown is in the forefront of world languages,” Donohue said. “We worked very hard with the K-5 elementary world language program.”

Donohue said she has a child with dyslexia, but is confident that the school staff would work to make sure she passes the world language graduation requirement.

Other School Committee members had some concerns about the requirement.

Rachel Kay said she struggled with the issue over the past few weeks.

“Partly because only 15 students don’t meet the requirement going in,” Kay said. “We are already doing a fabulous job getting students to take languages, but then I say we really should have a high standard and we want to meet MassCore.”

Lisa Capoccia said she works with middle schoolers in another district and sees students who have language-acquisition disabilities. She wanted to make sure that it was clear that exemptions are available. She suggested adding the language about the exemptions to the world language requirement.

Superintendent Dede Galdston said that typically that level of detail is not included in the Program of Studies. Giacobozzi said there is a blanket statement for all graduation requirements in the student handbook saying that exemptions can be requested and are approved by the principal.

Capoccia proposed an amendment to add language saying that exemptions are available. Giacobozzi said the language in the student handbook could be changed to specify that exemptions are available for every subject in the graduation requirements. City Council President Mark Siders, who also has a seat on the School Committee, said the Committee already approved the student handbook and he was not comfortable changing the document. He suggested adding it as an item on a future agenda if the School Committee wants to make the change.

The amendment was withdrawn by Capoccia. The motion to add the world language graduation requirement was passed 6-1, with Capoccia voting “nay.”

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