White Oak school starts foreign language academy program

| Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, 3:56 a.m.

Nicholas Martino, 9, learned a little Spanish last year when he was in third grade. He liked the experience and has high hopes for the new school year at Francis McClure Intermediate School in White Oak.

“I like different languages and different cultures,” explained Nicholas, one of 42 fourth-graders who have signed up for the school's new Academy of Cultural Experiences. Enrolled students and their parents attended an orientation session on Tuesday.

The four-year program will introduce its first crop of students to Mandarin Chinese, German, Spanish and French, then have them continue on a language- and culture-centered learning track through eighth grade.

McKeesport Area School District is introducing ACE as a sister program to its Academy in Math and Science at Twin Rivers Intermediate and Primary School, which features a curriculum emphasizing those disciplines.

At the ACE orientation, students and their parents were introduced to the goals of the program and some of the learning techniques and technologies it will employ. One segment included a geographic trivia game played with handheld electronic devices on which students recorded their answers.

The morning ended with a luncheon featuring dishes designed to be representative of the cultures of study. German chocolate cake appeared to be the students' favorite.

Officials at the event said the purpose of the academy is to get children excited about learning and to teach them lessons that will help them succeed in the global culture.

“We need to be creative and innovative in trying to get kids interested in learning and excited about coming to school,” Francis McClure principal Pam Gordon explained. “If you can get them here they will learn.”

Penn State Greater Allegheny is helping the district facilitate the program through its international education program.

Sarah Ma, an international recruiter for the college who lived in China for six years, said there are plans to bring international students in to teach aspects of language and culture to students.

Margaret Signorella, director of academic affairs for the Greater Allegheny campus, said the students are part of a global society.

“We would be derelict if we did not expose them to these issues,” she said.

The district will evaluate the success of the program this year and make adjustments as necessary as it moves forward. It has not yet been determined if students will study the same languages and nations as they progress through the program.

Some parents at the event said they believe the instruction will allow their children to make an informed decision later in school about what language to study in college.

So far, demand for the program has been great. This year's enrollees were determined by a lottery draw, according to school officials.

The district hopes to eventually add a third academy program for the performing arts.

Michael Matta, director of federal and state programs for the district, said the idea for academies grew out of a parental survey about six years ago.

Missy Piontka and Jamie Filotei are teachers for the ACE program's two classrooms. There are plans to pair students with advanced-level foreign language and culinary arts students at the high school later in the year.

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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