BRATTLEBORO -- Judy Abascal, who has chaired the Modern and Classical Languages Department at Brattleboro Union High School, retired this year after a teaching career that spanned 41 years, 28 of them at BUHS.
"I became department head in 2000," she said in a recent interview. "We were able to develop a proficiency-based program. We started down that path when Jenny Brown was department head. We continued it, further developed it, and fine-tuned it. It's a unique program -- it's unique to this state, to New England and the United States."
BUHS offers five languages -- Chinese, French, German, Latin, and Spanish.
"This community has supported us," Abascal commented. "It's most unusual to have four modern languages and Latin in a school of this size."
While Latin still focuses on grammar, reading and translation, students in BUHS modern-language classes learn to speak, write, read, and understand the language through using it in meaningful situations. Novice students' language is built around their own daily lives; intermediate students begin to learn vocabulary and structures they can use as travelers, and advanced students learn about the history and culture of places where the language is spoken.
"Going from a traditional grammar-based approach to that proficiency-based approach was a paradigm shift," Abascal explained. "Students are now promoted in their language classes based on how they can perform with the language. Our programs are aligned with national speaking standards, and mirror the Foreign Service standards and are similar to the European Framework."
Assessment mirrors the proficiency-based approach to learning. Students don't take traditional tests; instead, they demonstrate what they've learned by speaking and writing.
"We've come up with a system where students are evaluated on what they can do," she said. "It's department-wide, so students in each of the modern languages understand how they will be tested and what the goals are.
"We make the language relevant," Abascal continued. "For example, we invite other speakers in, and that doesn't happen in other schools."
She noted that homestay programs in countries where the languages are spoken also help students see the importance of learning to communicate. BUHS Abroad has allowed hundreds of French, German, Spanish and Chinese language students to travel to other countries and immerse themselves in another way of life.
"Students live with a family, live the language and the culture," Abascal said. "It's not mainly a tourist trip. To me, this is diversity at its height. They see a whole range of socio-economic families and situations. In Costa Rica, our students work in a school.
"These trips change kids," she commented. "They come back different people, with an appreciation of what they have here and the values that are part of their own family that they didn't realize before. And they also see what is not valued here -- for example, health care for all. Stereotypes just fade away."
Abascal herself has led 14 BUHS Abroad trips, and upon her retirement her colleagues in the Modern and Classical Languages Department established the Judith Abascal Leadership in Travel Award, to recognize students who develop their leadership skills while traveling abroad. This year's winners were Olivia Hamm, Jacob Mann, and Halie Lange.
The language department also works with other organizations to offer travel to BUHS students.
"We have worked with the Experiment in International Living," Abascal said. "We have promoted their summer trips and many students -- 11 this year alone -- have been granted scholarships to travel abroad."
Language students can earn college credit for their work in advanced classes through the Windham Regional Collegiate High School. Abascal served on an organizing committee for the Collegiate High School.
"Students of Spanish, French and German can get up to six college credits that are transferrable to other colleges," she said. "Many students place into sophomore- or even junior-level courses when they go to college.
"Students report that they use their language in the workplace," she went on. "We have three former BUHS graduates who are now working for the U.S. Department of State, one is working for the N.Y. Mets and had to interview in Spanish for the position, and one is an assistant to the French consul in Boston."
She said that the strong spirit of collaboration in the department has contributed to the program's success.
"We support one another," she commented. "Teachers work together to develop curriculum, share best practice -- ideas and projects that have been successful -- or not -- in a class, and why. Often in schools teachers keep their best ideas to themselves."
After her retirement, Abascal will be using her expertise and experience to work with other teachers.
"Starting in August, I'll be consulting with the World Language Department at Burr and Burton, helping them go from a more traditional approach to a proficiency approach," she said. "I'll be spending more time with family -- my son David and his wife and two children live in Winooski, and my daughter Elizabeth is in Berlin, Germany, pursuing a career in music. It will be nice to travel when I want and not on school vacation time, and I'm hoping to volunteer within the community.
"I will miss the students," she concluded. "This community not only supports this program -- the families and the students are lovely."
Maggie Cassidy teaches French at BUHS.