Saline School District Pivots Away from Spanish, Toward 'Innovation Labs' in Elementary Schools

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 05/14/2019 - 17:04
Students and teachers carry flags of various nations at Saline homecoming parades.

In 2013, a $75,000 grant from the Foundation for Saline Area Schools helped kickstart new Spanish language curriculum in Saline’s elementary schools.

At the time, the district was eager to introduce world languages to elementary school kids and hoped to produce graduates were globally aware. The district chose Spanish over Mandarin Chinese, French and German after surveying 1,100 residents.

School leadership was enthusiastic about the new program.

“The kids who stick with it will have the opportunity to become very proficient in their skills. The younger students (K-3) are like sponges and can absorb more,” Assistant Superintendent Steve Laatsch said at the time. “We’re excited about this.”

Six years later, the elementary Spanish program is being shelved in favor of project-based learning lessons. The district notified parents via email two weeks ago.

“The district has made the decision to replace elementary Spanish at the Kindergarten - 5th grade level with a new special called 'Innovation Lab.' We believe that this special will be better equipped to help students experience all the SAS Compass student attributes. This will be effective at the conclusion of the 2018/19 school year,” Laatsch and fellow Assistant Superintendent Curt Ellis wrote in the email.

Four elementary school Spanish teachers were assigned to other teaching positions in the district.

The “innovation labs” will include elements of makerspaces, engineering and computer science. Classes will be 72 minutes. The district will offer Spanish classes at the secondary schools.

The move was met with mixed reactions from Saline parents. The topic drew more than 100 comments on the Saline Posts Facebook group.

Parent Mark Hensel said he thought the move was a positive development.

“I’m just disappointed my oldest is going into fifth so won’t have the new class. I’m glad my youngest will for a couple of years,” Hensel said. “I have never been impressed by the elementary Spanish class. I think this will be a good change.”

Rebecca Schneider said she understands the importance of learning a second language. Still, her kids didn’t love Spanish class and she thinks her son will enjoy the new “innovation lab.”

“My son was always irritated that he didn’t get the opportunity to have a class like Quest because it aligns more with his interests. Given the state-wide underperformance in science test scores, I don’t think more exposure to this subject can hurt,” Schneider said.

Lin Nichols said she thinks moving away from elementary school Spanish is a lost opportunity.

“I am saddened that Spanish is being removed, as the early childhood window is a unique time in the brain’s ability to learn languages. I also appreciate the exposure to other cultures which some in our area are lacking,” Nichols said.

And while she appreciates efforts to educate kids in technical areas like coding, she worries more screen time can be harmful for children.

“Increased exposure to screen time does limit creativity, problem solving, sensory and hands on learning, and we are seeing the detrimental effects in students. I’m excited that students will have additional opportunities to grow those skills in addition to coding,” Nichols said. “It’s a shame it has to be either/or, but this is likely a very good thing for many students.”

So why the move, six years after introducing Spanish in elementary schools? Superintendent Scot Graden said there are several reasons. It fits the project-based learning model, which the district employs throughout the district - whether it’s in Leigh Ann Roehm’s science class, Project Lead the Way, the maker-spaces in the elementary buildings, or the senior capstone class.

While Saline Area Schools continues traditional teaching - teach, read the text book, and test - Graden said research suggests there are better ways to have students retain knowledge.

“At some level, we know retention rates are not as strong as we’d like them to be. So we’re trying to create flexible learners who can communicate and engage in critical thinking. That’s the bedrock of life success,” Graden said.

The district’s push toward project-based learning stems from the research of John Hattie, who asserts that the best learning occurs in engaged classrooms where students seek to master the goal and passionately participate in the act of learning. So expect the innovation labs to be relevant and engaging.

The district has only so many hours in the day, and so many resources to employ. After five years of weekly elementary Spanish classes, the district realized it wasn’t producing substantially more fluency in the Spanish language.

“Our current model did not produce the results we would want for us to continue. We decided this was not the best use of time for our students,” Graden said.

That decision was made after consulting with the district’s administration team.

A factor in the timing of the move was the retirement of long-time high school Spanish teacher Dianna Aikens and the departure of a second Spanish teacher. The elementary Spanish teachers were moved into other positions in the district and layoffs were avoided.



Tran Longmoore's picture
Tran Longmoore
Tran Longmoore is a veteran community journalist. He is founder and owner of He is co-publisher of The Saline Post weekly newspaper. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 734-272-6294.

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