Expand a Language Program

Expand a Program header

Seeking to add additional language options at your local high school? Learn how to get started with our step-by-step suggestions, and let us know about your group or project.

Guide to Expanding Language Courses at the Secondary Level

3 Steps Lead to Success

Phrases like globally competent learners, productive citizens in an interconnected world, and responsible citizens in a global community are showing up in mission and vision statements of schools and school districts across the United States. Educators are joining parents, business leaders, and community leaders in realizing that for our children, the future will require different competencies, attitudes, and skills than the past. Languages are at the heart of the 21st century skills that will lead them to success, and all children should have the opportunity to choose the languages they want to learn, based on their interests and aspirations. In addition, schools and school districts may want to expand their language offerings to better reflect the languages that are spoken in the local community.

Initiating a new language program is traditionally a task undertaken by school or school district stakeholders, but in some circumstances, it may be appropriate for parents to proactively request that additional language programs be added to the current language offerings in a school or school system. Parents and school personnel working as collaborative stakeholders are essential in the initiation of a new language program and directly influence the sustainability of the program.

The steps to negotiating though a school system or district’s policies and procedures to implementing a new language program can range from straightforward to highly complex. However, this does not make starting a program an unreasonable goal. By mobilizing fellow stakeholders and supporters, and then collaboratively focusing on each step, one at a time, progress is achievable.

No matter your system or district’s specific guidelines, the following three steps can serve as a springboard to help inform and guide all stakeholder groups as they navigate the process:

  • Do Your Research
  • Be A Resource
  • Be Responsive

Step 1: Do Your Research

What opportunities and barriers currently exist?

Many factors influence a school’s decision to add, or not add, a new language program. A productive way to begin the process is to do as much research and gather as much data and information as possible before making a formal request. Both quantitative information and qualitative information will be important to gather. Consider assessing needs, interest, and capacity as you get started. School personnel should be able to assist you with these assessments. Contact the person who is in charge of curriculum and instruction or teaching and learning and find out who within the system is the best contact with whom to work on this

Conduct a Needs Assessment

Proving that a need exists for an additional language offering is foundational to success. Important questions to consider:

  • Where (or in which schools) is the opportunity for an additional language compelling?
  • Where is the opportunity potentially successful?
  • Where are there gaps in current language offerings?
  • Where can this language program add unique value?
  • Does the study of this language connect to an existing college or workforce program?

Carefully analyze schools, their students, and current language offerings to be sure that the new program could be sustainable over time. It is critical that the school system perceive the addition of a new language program as a potential solution for all of its students, not just for a few. Trying to insert a new program into a situation that is already crowded or into one in which enrollment is fully realized can be unproductive.

Search for unique ways to complement the existing student population and respond to an individual school or campus community’s needs. For example, offering a Portuguese language program in schools with a high percentage of Spanish heritage speakers provides a pathway to trilingualism that will be especially appealing to parent stakeholders with an eye on future career opportunities for their children.

Conduct an Interest Assessment

Is there interest in the wider school community for a new language?

Surveying the community to show interest is important, but—given the expense and training required to start a new program—a school system will especially want to know data about potential enrollment: does the community have an adequate number of students who could potentially enroll? These students must be the right age to be ready for enrollment in a course one or two years in the future, not students who are already enrolled in any of the current language program offerings.

If a heritage speaker group is part of the school community, it would be important to note the potential of non-heritage students who would enroll in this course. Public schools are charged to provide courses accessible to all students in their communities and would want to make sure that all learners’ needs will be served.

What benefit will be gained by the campus community?

It is important to consider what impact a new language program will have on the status quo of an individual school or campus community. If the campus has a strong mentor/mentee framework, teachers of new language programs would benefit from the professional support already in place. If the campus has low or declining enrollment, new programs are an opportunity to add diverse students and their families to the current campus community.

Conduct a Capacity Assessment

Investigating the practicalities of introducing a new language program up front will be helpful and informative for all stakeholders. Finances, staffing, and teacher support are primary drivers in school district decisions that must be directly addressed. Familiarize yourself with the policies and procedures detailed in the official School Board policy documents or outlined as practices in the day-to-day work of your school system. Both parent and school personnel stakeholder groups proposing new language programs will be asked to follow these pre-existing protocols.

Is state certification or licensure possible for teachers of the proposed new language course?

It’s always best to confirm that certification is offered before going too far into the process. Check with the state education agency or state board of education to find out.

How are instructional program and course decisions made in your system?

Some systems are central-office based, where a district administrator makes course decisions for the entire school system. Other systems are site-based, where principals have more decision-making ability for their own campus communities. It is important to find out if a principal can make the decision to offer a new language at his or her single campus, or if the decision must be made system-wide at the district level, so that the conversation takes place with the appropriate person. If the system is site-based, consider what will ensure that the language program will continue if that campus principal moves to another school or school system.

What are the district procedures regarding new course proposals? What is the approval process?

Most school systems have a procedure in place to propose new courses or new course programs. A new language would be a new language program, since a sequence of courses would be required rather than just one. Critical questions include:

  • What is the timeline for new course/program proposals?
  • When must paperwork be submitted and to whom?
What will be the initial financial and budget implications?

Most school systems make public the salary scale for instructors, but those figures alone do not represent the full cost of implementing a new language program. Startup costs include instructional materials like textbooks, readers, software, or workbooks; the development of curriculum and assessments also involves funding, along with mentoring, teacher training, professional development, and instructional coaching. Depending on which language is selected, certified teachers might need additional mentoring around classroom management, the culture of American schools, and developing and maintaining a target-language rich instructional environment.

Where are the students for this language? How and when will they enroll?

Almost all districts publish their course selection guide online. Study this guide to determine the enrollment entry point for language study. While this is typically in middle school or junior high, it may vary by language; for example, a district may offer one or two languages in middle school, and then several others at the high-school level.

Researching enrollment trends will be especially helpful if the new language will be offered only in high school. Since students need to have a sustained sequence of courses to gain proficiency, a district will want to determine if there is a sufficient pool of students for the new language program to survive the attrition that normally takes place from one level to the next. It is common for school systems to have calculated a minimum enrollment number for a course to be offered; find out what that number is, and be prepared to address questions regarding sustainability.

If it appears that there may not be sufficient student interest initially, ask about forming an after school club to generate interest and commitment on the part of the students. Perhaps there is a current staff member with an interest in a particular language who would be willing to sponsor this after school activity as a way to determine interest. If students become motivated by learning some ways to communicate in the language and develop an interest in the culture, it will lead to enrollment in the courses when they are eventually put on the schedule as an option.

Step 2: Be a Resource

What obstacles need to be addressed? What innovative solutions can be proposed?

Once a needs/interest/capacity assessment has been done, stakeholders can use that information to address concerns raised by the school system. Having some answers to potential questions ready in advance—and being able to show how a program will be sustainable—can smooth the pathway to implementation of new language programs.

In addition to the questions listed above, be prepared with information in the following areas:

Implementation & Finances

  • What local support can you offer? (parent meetings, student meetings, brochures for counselors, contacts with colleges, career readiness speakers)
  • What support can you provide? (guest speakers, cultural programs, extracurricular clubs, service learning)
  • What are some potential funding sources? (grants, fellowships, cultural entities, scholarships)
  • Are there opportunities for partnerships with business or cultural entities in the community?
  • How do you make sure that students enroll?
  • What is a reasonable timeline for implementation?

Staffing & Teacher Support

  • What curriculum is available? (publishers, online courseware, open source materials)
  • What instructional materials are available?
  • What are the requirements for teacher certification?
  • Are potential teachers already in the district? If not, where can they be recruited?
  • What other or outside opportunities for teacher preparation are there? (government funding, state or regional language conferences, language-specific teacher organizations, online courses or webinars)
  • What further opportunities are there for learners who enroll in this language? (college, study abroad, government programs, internships)
  • What teacher support will be needed to sustain the program over time?
  • What student support will be needed to sustain the program over time?

Step 3: Be Responsive

How can you engage decision makers?

At this point, the parent or school stakeholder group has done the research, addressed the obstacles and solutions, and is now ready to engage in the process set up by the school system or district. Crafting your message and investing the time to thoughtfully consider how to actively engage key decision makers will be worth the effort.

Keep in mind that there may be different levels of key decision makers, from district-level or principal-level up to the School Board or down to campus teachers and counselors, to parents, and even to the students themselves. Each group will require a slightly different message. A key component is educating each decision-making or influencing group about the language program and the potential benefits for all.

Consider the following:

  • How will you engage key stakeholders?
  • How can you increase key stakeholders’ depth of knowledge?
  • How will you address concerns about the sustainability of the program over time?
  • What strategies are there for open communication with parents and students?
  • How can you generate positive awareness within the community?
  • Does your state endorse the Seal of Biliteracy and Bilingualism for high-school graduates, and how can the new language program add value to this initiative?
  • Can you connect the new language program with:
    • Cultural or heritage language groups within the wider school community?
    • An Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate diploma, certification, or program?
    • Existing college and career readiness initiatives or internships?
    • An existing service learning project?
    • An existing Sister Cities program in your community?

Make it Happen

Taken individually, these suggestions might seem daunting, but stakeholder groups will discover that many of the steps described above are interconnected and collecting one piece of data will provide answers to several items and questions. The size of your school; any past experiences with language programs; staff, parent, and student attitudes toward language learning; and the cultural and linguistic diversity within the larger and smaller school community will all influence the level of preparation required, as well as the activities that are most likely to bring about a positive outcome. With the right research, careful planning, and a dedicated team of supporters, you can be well on your way toward starting a new language program.


Mansilla, V. & A. Jackson. Educating for Global Competence: Preparing our Youth to Engage the World. Asia Society. Free Download: http://asiasociety.org/files/book-globalcompetence.pdf.