Chicago — One look at Mrs. Antonia Kentros's blackboard, a quick listen to the way her students pronounce the words on it, and you may conclude "it's all Greek to me."
It happens to be Greek to the grade schoolers in Sayre Language Academy as well. The difference is that, after a year of daily instruction, they understand many of the words and can comfortably chat with each other in modern Greek.
Sayre is one of five magnet elementary schools in Chicago which are officially designated as "language academies." In addition to regular classroom instruction, pupils spend 20-to-40 minutes a day taking Greek, Italian, or Spanish. In addition to learning the language -- an option currently available to only about 1 percent of the nation's elementary-school population -- the students are taught about the country and its culture.
Often, say teachers and parents, the children pick up fresh motivation which helps them do better in their other studies.
"Many of them don't want to take a day off from school just because they don't want to miss the language," says one enthusiastic parent.
The program, launched last September, is part of the city's controversial desegregation plan -- which is ambitiously called "Access to Excellence." Three of the five "language academies" are on Chicago's predominantly black South Side. The intent was that the special language offering -- ranging in other schools from Polish and Hebrew to Japanese and French -- would draw pupils not only in their natural attendance areas, but also from other elementary schools across the city.
While most of the magnet schools need more white pupils to meet desegregation guidelines, the program is deemed enough of a success -- at a time of exceedingly tight school budgets -- that the Chicago Board of Education will continue it next year. The hope is that students will one day be able to take the same language through grade school and into high school.
Edwin Cudecki, director of the city school system's Bureau of Foreign Languages, says that the elementary-school language program was, from the start, more than an "add-on." The idea was to integrate language study into the regular curriculum so that classroom and language teachers would reinforce each other's goals. A simple example: Students learning colors and numbers in their regular classrooms might learn them in their foreign language as well.
"In the beginning the loss of class time was a little frustrating to me," admits Mrs. Gwendolyn Pope, a fifth-grade teacher at Sayre. "But we've all become used to it, and the children have grown very adept at making language connections in things we read and talk about. . . . I have one student who even signs her papers with a little phrase in Spanish or her name in Spanish."
"I basically consider every teacher in a language academy a language teacher, " Mr. Cudecki insists. "We want the concept to be all-embracing so that everyone realizes they are working at a language academy."
At Sayre that message appears to be clear. A visitor is greeted by a trilingual welcome sign and labels identifying everything important from the telephone to the office in each of the three languages. Travel posters and maps hang on many of the walls.
Here as elsewhere parents first had to give their stamp of approval to the project.
"The parents in our area were very enthusiastic; they approved it 100 percent ," says Mrs. Ann Piazza, president of Sayre's Parent-Teacher Association.
Sayre principal Julian Lewit explains that Italian and Greek were chosen because they account for the largest ethnic pockets in the predominantly white neighborhood on Chicago's far west side. Spanish was chosen as a draw for minority pupils from other parts of the city.
Students may choose, within class-size limits, which language is for them. Ten-year-old Kenny Daciolas says he chose Spanish because his family might visit Mexico City soon ("I've been teaching my mother Spanish") and because he wanted to understand what people were saying on one of Chicago's all-Spanish TV channels.
Language teaching takes every form here from game-playing and singing to puppets and cooking. Kenny happens to be part of a fifth-grade Spanish class which on one of the last days of school before summer is preparing a Mexican meal of tacos (the teacher cautions students against putting too much hot pepper inside the freshly fried tortillas) and guacamola dip.
The language classes are lively, with some drill, but rarely enough to cause attention to wander. The compact time period encourages a classwide attitude of making every moment count.
Students vie for the opportunity to get behind a small stage in the corner and man some Muppet-like puppets, providing the slightly improvised Italian dialogue. Teacher Bill Carson accompanies his students on the tambourine as they sing a lively tune ticking off the days of the week and numbers, then launching into all-Italian versions of "Oh Susannah" and "Santa Lucia."
Nearby in Mrs. Kentros's Greek class, conducted almost entirely in that language, students pay close attention to questions. Their enthusiasm and desire to get things right is obvious, even when Mrs. Kentros occasionally corrects their pronounciation by pointing to the diphthong chart above the blackboard.
Language teachers insist they are always greeted in the hall in the language they teach and often find students teaching others "their" language.
"I think many of us underestimate how capable young children are of learning some things classified as advanced -- they're extraordinary receptive, even at the kindergarten level," says Mr. Lewit. He says he hopes eventually that world news developments in the language studied can be passed out to Sayre students.