PORTSMOUTH ó A team of school leaders recently completed an exploratory look into the possible implementation of a foreign language program at the elementary level, as part of the district's ongoing mission to create global citizens and promote cultural competency.

If approved through the budget process, students kindergarten through fifth grade might see Spanish integrated into everyday education.

The team gave a presentation on its findings to the Portsmouth School Board last month, following about a year-and-a-half study. The goals, as outlined to the board, include promotion of second language acquisition, enhancement of communication, critical thinking skills, and development of global citizens in an increasingly connected world.

According to Superintendent Stephen Zadravec, the elementary schools in Rye, Greenland, Newington and New Castle already teach a second language to elementary-aged students, so putting Portsmouth elementary schools on par with the rest would only make sense when it comes to students being integrated at the high school level.

Assistant Superintendent George Shea said the team found students below age 8 are "extremely opportune for language acquisition." Those skills, he said, would also increase self confidence, overall academic achievement and empathy.

As an example, Shea said if fourth-graders are learning about the animals of New Hampshire, they'd teach the animals in Spanish, too. The team found rather than having separate language classes, the integration aspect was crucial as far as scheduling.

Portsmouth Middle School French teacher Jennie Siegel served on the committee. She said the language program would provide a forum to also "celebrate and connect English language learners and bilingual students."

Zadravec said it would be an opportunity for students whose first language is Spanish, a topic of education they're already an expert in. Portsmouth schools are trending "a little more diverse" than in the past, Zadravec said, with 20 percent being non-white students. In addition, the city of Portsmouth itself "has a wealth of connection to other parts of the world," and the high school has relationships overseas.

"In short, if you can speak a language when you travel, youíre going to speak to the locals, youíre going to get to know people," Siegel said. "Itís a very different experience to be a tourist without language skills than a tourist with language skills."

Second-grade teacher Ben Phinney explained the committee found 75 to 90 minutes per week would be an effective program. They ultimately narrowed their language choice down to Spanish because it's "a very practical choice given national trends in language learning and population trends on our country." In addition, Phinney said it's "relatively uncomplicated," with a lot of connections to English.

Jen Bell, a parent and world language teacher in SAU 50, said the program would be aligned with national standards, as there are no state standards in New Hampshire. That allows each district to design its own program.†

In 2017, 27.47 percent of New Hampshire students kindergarten through 12th grade were enrolled in foreign language classes, according to the American Councils for International Education. That percentage, which generally reflects the level nationwide as well, lags behind language education in other continents.

School Board member Brian French said in his professional life, heís worked with many people overseas who spoke several languages, some of whom spoke English as their third or fourth.

"I think itís important for our kids here to get some of that exposure the rest of the world is definitely doing," French said.

Some of the challenges the team encountered in implementing a program include scheduling and funding to staff the instruction positions. They considered a contract program, One World Language, which currently runs after-school instruction for students.

Shea said the recommendation is to cover kindergarten and first grade for next school year "to kick the program off." They're imagining it as "language on a cart," integrated into classrooms, "peppering" their day with this, Shea said.

"Iím fully in support of this," said School Board Chair Patrick Ellis. "I hope that we can figure it out in our budget."

At Portsmouth Middle School, they currently offer Spanish, French and Mandarin/Chinese classes, and at the high school, French, Spanish, Chinese, Latin and shorter immersion experiences in German and Italian.

"We're consciously trying to expose students to new experiences," Zadravec said.