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‘A great  equalizer’

As this school year 6th 8th grade students West Aurora's gifted program can take Spanish French LatGerman Chinese language vian

As of this school year, 6th to 8th grade students in West Aurora's gifted program can take Spanish, French, Latin, German and Chinese language via an online class. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 5, 2013 6:09AM

AURORA — Like the other 29 seventh-grade students in her class, 12-year-old Amy Guo sat at her desk at West Aurora’s Jewel Middle School on Friday with her eyes glued to her laptop screen and a headset covering her ears.

But Guo wasn’t committing a classroom faux pas.

She was learning Chinese online.

“My parents are both Chinese and I wanted to learn,” Guo said of her language choice. “They tried to [teach me], but it was basic. I couldn’t understand what they were saying.”

Now, she says, she can understand her parents’ Chinese better and she knows proper sentence construction in the language. Her online teacher quizzes her on Chinese characters and Guo watches videos through the program to improve her pen strokes.

Guo is one of 90 gifted middle school students at West Aurora taking a high school level world language class online, using software the district bought to expand language offerings for its students.

The gifted program selects the top 30 students per grade level and groups them together to provide them with more rigorous coursework.

The district started rolling out the language program in 2011 and this year marks the first time that all gifted middle schoolers — in sixth, seventh and eighth grades — have access to the program in Spanish, French, Latin, German and Chinese.

The online program worked so well that the district brought it to West Aurora High School, which started offering Japanese, Latin and Chinese this year and now has 26 students enrolled — more than the school expected.

The programs are part of a push the district is making to offer students more world languages for less than it would cost to hire a teacher for each of those languages.

“This technology has been a great equalizer,” district spokesman Mike Chapin said, noting that in the past wealthier districts in the Chicago area were able to afford a broader world language course catalog than West Aurora.

“Kids really, really like using the program,” said Julie Esparza, who coordinates the district’s gifted and talented program. “Some of it is kind of gaming-ish.”

On Friday, world language teacher Kristine Kasper’s seventh grade class was almost silent, save for the intermittent sound of mouse clicks and a few students muttering aloud in German.

Each student wore a headset with a microphone so he could complete practice lessons and record speaking assignments, which are handed in to the class teacher, a person working remotely who is licensed to teach in Illinois.

Though that teacher isn’t in the classroom, she gives feedback on the student’s assignments within 24 hours. The teacher also holds weekly office hours to answer student questions and records those sessions so students can replay them later.

Every year, the gifted students choose which language they want to take, so these language classes are filled with students speaking different languages at varying levels.

Kasper reviews the students’ tests, grades and time spent on activities to see if anyone needs extra help.

“The nice thing is when they’re doing it online they can do it more at their own pace,” Kasper said. “The amount of media that’s incorporated into the language programs on the laptops is more than I could do in a classroom.”

Occasionally, Esparza said, a student will zip through an assignment because it’s on the computer, or will take too long, striving to get a perfect score. That’s when Kasper intervenes to make sure the student is spending the right amount of time on the lessons.

In mid-September, Esparza and Kasper won an award from K12, the Virginia-based company that provides the online language-learning program, for their work on West Aurora’s program.

K12 is flying Esparza to Orlando to accept the award, which is given out for innovative use of online education, in late October. Last year, five districts were honored.

K12 was also the curriculum provider for the charter school that a nonprofit with a St. Charles post office box, Virtual Learning Solutions, tried to bring to the Fox Valley area earlier this year.

While plans for the school were eventually shut down after the state legislature intervened, public hearings raised questions about the most effective uses of online education.

At the time, West Aurora used K12’s online language program as an example of how certain programs can fill educational voids and save districts money.

Shawn Munos, West High’s assistant principal for teaching and learning, said the online program greatly expanded offerings at the high school, without needing to hire additional staff.

In the past, West High offered only French and Spanish in-person, and now the school offers those and German, as well as Latin, Japanese and Chinese online. A world language teacher facilitates the online classes, Munos said, and is fluent in seven languages.

“Many of these kids have already taken another language so this is a second or third language for a lot of them,” Munos said. “I believe as this continues it will get larger and larger.”

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