Petersburg school board got a better understanding of what it will look like for foreign language students without a teacher at Petersburg High School next year. But as Angela Denning reports, some former teachers don’t think digital learning is the right move.

All of PHS’s foreign language courses will be offered through online classes or distance delivery starting this fall. Teachers will be live on a video screen with students in Petersburg plugged into the class with computers and headphones.

At the last school board meeting, Principal Rick Dormer said they are looking for quality online programs.

“I think many of us in this room have taken distance delivery classes and know that quality can vary and the experience can vary,” Dormer said.

Part of the move to go digital is in response to problems with keeping foreign language teachers in Petersburg. Dormer says the instructors often want to teach their foreign language full-time but the small school can’t provide that kind of course load. So, they end up teaching other kinds of classes, not exactly what they might want.

“I’m finishing my ninth year as high school and middle school principal,” said Dormer, “and we have had five different foreign language teachers in my nine years so that’s less than two years a teacher. So, we’re obviously lacking some continuity.”

The school plans to offer foreign language classes through a digital academy in Ketchikan and other online schools. Dormer says it will allow students to be more flexible with their schedules taking classes when it’s more convenient for them. He says students are already signed up for Spanish, Latin, and sign language. Others are interested in taking Russian and French.

“We know that they’re quality, we know that they’re accredited, we know that the curriculum they’re going to get is of equal quality that we’re going to get someplace here. In some ways, it’s even more, it’s been vetted a little bit longer,” Dormer said.

But not everyone agrees that foreign language online is a good idea.

“This is a common mistake, lumping foreign language in with other topics or other fields of study,” Beraza said.

That’s outgoing Spanish teacher, Rowan Beraza.

“Foreign language is interactive,” she said. “It’s a practical skill, it involves a lot of practice time. Students have to actually practice.”

Beraza has taught Spanish in the classroom as well as online. She says if you’re just looking to check off boxes showing that students took the class for college, then it will work fine. But she says it won’t make students proficient in the language.

“Learning a foreign language in a digital learning environment I would equate to learning ballet,” Beraza said. “You can learn the theory of ballet, you can learn what it should look like what it should feel like, how you should perform these dances but without actually practice time, you are not going to become a ballerina. So, it’s just an unrealistic fit for digital learning.”

Sue Hardin is also a former teacher at the high school. She taught Spanish for 19 years in Petersburg before moving to Washington. She says at one point over half the student body was enrolled in Spanish classes. She’s disappointed that there can’t be a foreign language teacher present at the school.

“I’m sorry to see it happen, I think it’s kind of a shame,” she said.

Hardin says she’s not opposed to all online learning. In fact, she’s taught English online and thinks it works fine for subjects that aren’t foreign language.

“What I did a lot in Spanish class was tell stories and so there was a lot of movement and a lot of engagement. It’s very difficult to reproduce that in an online course,” Hardin said.

Hardin says some of that active teaching could work online because the teacher will be live. But she says learning foreign language through a video screen probably won’t work for all students.

“My worry about it is that you’ll lose the kids that are only half engaged in the first place,” she said.

And that’s a legitimate concern. According to data the principal shared with the school board, less motivated students in middle and high school get worse grades online than when they have face to face teachers in the classroom. On the flip side, research shows that motivated students online typically have slightly better grades compared to motivated students in the classroom.

However, if there is blended learning approach, which includes both a teacher or aide in the classroom and a teacher online, the grades even out. So, that’s what the school plans to do, at least in classes where several students are enrolled, like Spanish 1. The school will provide an instructional aide to monitor the students.

“To support them,” Dormer said. “And they will fill in the spot of having a teacher,‘Hey, are you on task? Where are you going here? Is your work caught up? Are you on time?’ those type of things that kind of give them a personal experience.”

Dormer says once the classes get going in the fall he would like to get feedback from students and their parents about how it’s going.