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For tonight’s lesson, a trip to Guatemala

Boston Globe, March 26, 2009
by Jennifer Fenn Lefferts

Video technology links students, native speakers

This article was originally posted at

When Jackie Spinos entered her senior year at Burlington High School’s evening academy this year, Spanish II was a top priority.

The 19-year-old needed the class to graduate this spring, but the school couldn’t afford to hire a Spanish teacher.

Jackie Spinos, a student at the Burlington Evening Academy, learns from a Guatemalan tutor via Skype. (JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

The That meant Spinos would have to take an expensive online class, a community college course, or go to summer school – an option that would have delayed graduation.

Then school administrators discovered Speak Shop, a program that connects students to tutors in Guatemala and Venezuela. Students and teachers use Skype, a free software program that allows them to talk to and see one another one on one.

“It was a perfect fit for our evening academy,” said Burlington High principal Patrick Larkin. “We have a lot of kids trying to finish off high school diplomas. To sit with a native speaker one on one, I can’t imagine a better format. It’s also helping people in Third World countries gain a fair wage.”

The Burlington Evening Academy is the first school in the nation to use Speak Shop and is among the first in the state to take advantage of videoconferencing in the classroom, officials said.

Speak Shop was founded by Portland, Ore., resident Clay Cooper in 2005 as a way for people to learn Spanish from a native speaker without the cost of paying for an immersion program. Until this year, all his students were adults learning the language for work or travel, he said.

Superintendent Eric Conti of Burlington learned about Speak Shop through a relative and thought it might work in the evening program, which offers classes at night for students trying to earn enough credits for graduation.

There are about 20 students in the evening program, and each year there are new challenges, said Georgia Devine, director of the evening academy. Each student needs different credits for graduation, so the program has to be tailored to meet students’ needs. This year, five students needed art, for example, so the program hired an art teacher.
The students participating in the evening program have passed the 10th-grade MCAS exams required for graduation and typically have a year’s or two years’ worth of credits remaining, Larkin said.

Most are students who have to work during the day for financial reasons or who have struggled to keep up in a traditional seven-period day schedule, he said. The program has eight teachers but not all are used each night depending on the schedule.

But just two of the students had not met their foreign language requirement of two years. Thanks to the Speak Shop program, the two girls are taking Spanish this year and plan to graduate in the spring, Devine said.

“It’s difficult to meet that requirement because we are not going to hire a teacher for two students,” Devine said. “It’s been an incredible godsend.”
Each Tuesday evening, the two students each meet for 45 minutes with Milvia Vásquez, the Guatemalan tutor arranged through Speak Shop. The class is conducted in Spanish.

Spinos, one of the students taking the class, said she likes it much more than a regular class.

“It’s really different,” she said. “It’s more one on one and you can understand more.”

Without it, Spinos said, she probably would have taken a summer class and would not have received her diploma this spring.

Larkin said it’s a pilot program that could be expanded to other areas of the school if successful. So far, all signs are pointing in that direction, he said.

The students are engaged and appear to be doing well, school officials said. The students were assessed at the beginning of the class and will take a test at the end to see how well they’ve progressed, Larkin said.

“I definitely think not too far down the road if we can show the quality of the instruction, we’d be crazy not to look at it from a variety of different angles,” Larkin said.

He said it wouldn’t take the place of the existing foreign languages program but could be used to supplement it and help as many students as possible meet requirements.

“We’re ahead of the curve on this, and we’re happy to be looking at it,” Larkin said. “It looks pretty promising.”

Cooper came up with the idea for Speak Shop after traveling to Guatemala to learn Spanish at an immersion school in 1998.

He was 31 at the time and wasn’t confident he’d come home speaking Spanish.

“I got the best instruction I ever could’ve wanted,” he said. “I thought, wow, if I can do this, anyone can learn a language this way.”

He talked to friends and family about it, many of whom said they would love to speak the language but couldn’t take the time to go or couldn’t afford it.

So Cooper founded Speak Shop as a way for students to use videoconferencing with tutors in Central America. Cooper said he has a partnership with an immersion school in Guatemala that provides the names of its best tutors.

Vásquez, for example, has more than 13 years of Spanish tutoring experience and has taken standard proficiency exams.

Students pay a user fee through Speak Shop and a tutor fee that goes to the tutors.

The monthly user fee is $9.99 for up to five lessons; $19.99 for up to 20 lessons; and $39.99 for unlimited lessons. In addition, students pay the tutors $8 to $10 an hour.

In Burlington’s case, the district is paying the cost for the students, Conti said. Hiring a Spanish teacher would have cost the district $35 an hour, Larkin said.

Heidi Guarino, a spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the program appears to be a good way to tie new technology to global learning. She said the department doesn’t track what new programs are used in the classrooms, but that more districts are taking advantage of technology to enhance learning.

For example, several schools in Massachusetts take part in a program called Virtual High School, which allows students to take classes online. However, Speak Shop is different in that all learning is done live and one on one.

“Overall I would say this is a good use of 21st-century skills and if used appropriately allows students to benefit from the expertise of educators in another country at very little cost,” Guarino said.