You learned Russian - in high school?

A Connecticut public school system cherishes its unusual specialty.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

As a whole, foreign-language instruction has suffered in recent years. Twenty-two percent of districts polled in a 2005 survey by the National K-12 Foreign Language Resource Center at Iowa State University eliminated one or more foreign languages last year - including Russian.

At Glastonbury High School, however, 93 percent of students take a foreign language, even though it's an elective by ninth grade. Spanish is required in first though eighth grades. Students may switch into French in the sixth grade, and in seventh they can add Russian. Latin is also offered in high school, as will be Mandarin Chinese in the fall.

Around dusk on this particular Tuesday, Glastonbury students gather with parents and teachers at Smith Middle School to welcome this year's crop of exchange students from Ukraine and France.

It's an unlikely public school gathering. Perhaps even more so for the enthusiasm of its students - no one grumbles about being back in school just hours after the final bell. Viktoria Zhovtun and Maryna Chekinova, both from Ukraine, when asked about their host students' accents, smile. "They speak Russian rather good," says Viktoria.

Glastonbury's exchange program - a custom the school maintains with great pride - began in 1989. In 1997, LaPorte participated in an exchange to Kyrgyzstan. (She has also spent summers after high school working for the State Department in Georgia and studying in Uzbekistan.)

At Buckingham, Browne, and Nichols, a Cambridge, Mass., prep school with a Russian program that dates back to 1956, students have traveled to the same school in Moscow since 1988. They claim as an alumus Alexander Vershbow, current US ambassador to Russia, whose first Russian words were uttered at BB&N.

Armen Dedekian, the school's Russian teacher and head of foreign languages, believes four years of Russian stand out on a transcript. "I'm not going to make any claims that it helps them get into Harvard," he says. But he's sure it merits "some kind of check mark" in admissions office folders. Glastonbury teachers have heard the same from students after college interviews.

Not all parents, however, dream of seeing their child earn a degree in Russian.

LaPorte's parents encouraged her early interest, but they were a little disappointed when she switched from pre-med to Russian and East European studies at Yale.

Now, though, says LaPorte, who hopes to become a professor of post-Soviet politics, her mother calls regularly to alert her to news articles on the region. Her sister, who studied Spanish at Glastonbury, is a Spanish and Latin American Studies major at the University of Connecticut.

Their parents like to joke, says LaPorte, that "between the two of us they can travel most places with a translator."

Where their Russian studies took them

Why study Russian today, so many years after the end of the cold war? Besides Russia's geographic mass, experts cite its oil and gas reserves, burgeoning businesses, and rich culture.

"Russia looms large in every way," says Benjamin Rifkin, chair of the Slavic Department at University of Wisconsin.

Glastonbury graduates' disparate pursuits seem to bear this out.

• After college, Richard Steffens, '78, went to work for the US Commerce Department. Learning over lunch one day that he spoke Russian, a higher-up waved over the woman in charge of assigning posts.

"She snapped out three sentences in Russian," writes Steffens in an e-mail from Prague, Czech Republic, where he is the US commercial counselor. He hadn't spoken Russian in a decade, but his Glastonbury training had stayed with him, so "I snapped back the right responses, with still a wonderful accent." The assignments director said, "Young man, your fate is sealed."

Two months later he was assigned to Moscow and, later, Vladivostok. He served in Russia for seven years. Next he will be in Kiev, Ukraine. Russian, he says, also offers the structure for Slavic languages like Czech and Ukrainian.

• As a graduate student in Moscow in 1987, Lisa Bailey, '83, worked as an interpreter for "Good Morning America." Later, she taught Russian at a private school in Honolulu.

• Sarah Cooper, '92, worked at the Defense Enterprise Fund in Richmond, Va., a government-sponsored venture capital fund that helped convert Soviet military facilities into businesses.

• After a stint at the US Embassy in Moscow, Allison Hawley, '94, worked as the Eurasia regional education advising coordinator for the State Department, helping Russians to study in the US.

• Anu Balakrishna, '94, has taught English to Russian immigrants in New York City's Chinatown.

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