You learned Russian - in high school?
A Connecticut public school system cherishes its unusual specialty.
More than 45 years ago, students in this picturesque New England suburb were first introduced to Russian. It was 1958. The satellite Sputnik had just been launched. And besides a frenzied push in math and science to catch Soviet technology, high schools and colleges were scrambling to establish Russian-language programs.Skip to next paragraph
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But national interest in Russian proved to be an example of what educators call the "flavor of the month" phenomenon. Within a decade or two, throughout most of the United States, national interest in Russian had dwindled, coming to a virtual standstill after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Linguistic attention in US schools eventually shifted to Japanese, then, more recently, Arabic - and to a lesser extent Chinese and Korean.
But not in the Glastonbury Public Schools.
Here, the community and its schools have clung stubbornly to their Russian-language tradition - and to other tongues as well.
In fact, foreign languages are so woven into the fabric of Glastonbury that they are held in as high esteem as any core subject.
"Our superintendent says foreign language is a basic skill," notes Christine Brown, director of foreign languages for the district. "How can you look at it in the 21st century as anything but a basic skill?"
Glastonbury's story is one of perseverance that has paid off.
Over the years, their students have assumed diplomatic posts across Eastern Europe, earned PhDs and taught Russian politics, and worked abroad for humanitarian organizations and business ventures.
And the school system has earned honors of its own. Nationally known today for both its longevity and an uncommonly long six-year Russian sequence, foreign-language experts consider the 7,000-student district a model.
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, down one of the high school's labyrinthine hallways in Room 144, where the class is conducted only in Russian, it's clear that Lynne Campbell's sixth-year students are hooked.
Self-proclaimed "Russian nerds," most of the 12 seniors say they plan to continue with Russian after graduation. Those who won't concentrate in Russian still hope to pad their college schedules with classes in the language now so familiar to them.
When Jody LaPorte, a 1998 Glastonbury High School graduate, entered Yale as a freshman, she was intent on becoming a doctor. But she soon found herself missing the routine and rhythms of language class. So sophomore year, Ms. Laporte tested into second-year Russian.
She met professors there who knew of Glastonbury's program. It was her peers, though, who were most impressed.
"Some of my classmates had gone to the really elite prep schools and taken Russian," says LaPorte, now in the second year of a PhD program in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. "But my Russian was as good, if not better, than theirs."
Russian programs that appeared in other towns around the time Glastonbury launched its own have since vanished.
"[Glastonbury's] has to be one of the oldest public school programs in Russian in New England - if not the country," says Jane Shuffelton, president of the American Council of Teachers of Russian (ACTR).
Their foreign-language program was formed in 1957 through a $1 million National Defense Education Act grant - an incredible windfall at the time. In collaboration with the government and nearby Yale University, Glastonbury pioneered the audio-lingual method of instruction, which remained popular into the '70s. Federal funding subsided in the 1960s, but the school district has chosen to keep its language program alive using local money.
Today, about 400 public and private schools offer some Russian, mostly at the high school level, according to Dan Davidson, CEO of ACTR, and a Russian professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
Some are in areas where Russian influence is heavy, like the new immersion program at Turnagain Elementary, a public school in Anchorage, Alaska. At one selective New York City public school, Staten Island Technical High School, opened in 1988, Russian is required.
This year, 26 high schools - including Glastonbury - were invited to pilot the Advanced Placement Russian test, which will be offered officially in 2006.
But activity in the field is still limited. Between 1990 and 1998, the number of schools offering Russian at both the K-12 and college levels fell by about 50 percent, says Mr. Davidson.
By 1998, no more than 8,000 K-12 students were studying Russian, down from an estimated 18,000 in 1990. Since 2002, he says, there's been a slight increase.