PEABODY — Können sie Deutsch lesen?
If you don't speak German, you don't have any idea what that sentence means. For a select group of students at Peabody Veterans Memorial High School, however, it's embarrassingly easy.
At this year's German National Exam, taken by high school students studying German across the United States, three Peabody students placed in the top 90th percentile nationally and two more in the upper 80s.
One student, 17-year-old junior Steven Zarella, placed in the 99th percentile nationally.
Their scores on the German exam are the equivalent to scoring 700 or higher on the language portion of the SATs.
"He speaks German better than most Germans, as far as I can tell," said Maria Branquinho, who speaks five languages and is the chairwoman of the school's foreign language department. "It's a gift. He's an exceptional kid."
Zarella began learning German in the eighth grade by playing an online computer game with some German kids he met online. They became serious about tweaking the game, writing new codes, and Zarella began asking his friends to teach him their language. It was almost like an online immersion program.
"Every week, I was learning something new. ... I just wanted to be understood like a native, to speak to them in their own language," he said. "It gave me a big head start."
Last year, he scored in the 98th percentile. After a rigorous selection process, the American Association of Teachers of German selected Zarella and 38 other students from across the nation to go to Germany for 31/2 weeks last summer. Zarella lived with a German family, went to school and spoke the language.
"It was the trip of a lifetime," he said.
The language program at Peabody High — offering Spanish, French, German, modern Greek, Latin, Portuguese and Italian — has been extraordinarily successful in recent years. Some graduates have gone on to become professional translators, interpreters for the U.S. Department of Defense. One is a Fulbright scholar working in Austria. From time to time, the department receives calls from corporations seeking translation help.
"It's highly unusual to continue to have (that many language) programs in this day and age," because of limited funding, said interim Peabody Superintendent Herb Levine, who has worked in several districts.
"If it's between math, English or a foreign language, you're probably going to cut foreign language first. This school system here has made a commitment to its longtime residents; it's a cultural thing. But I don't know how long we can do that."
Levine has proposed cutting the hours of a high school foreign language teacher and eliminating a full-time middle school foreign language teacher next year as a cost-cutting move.
German teacher Margaret Farrell, who teaches all four sections of German, agrees that Peabody places much more emphasis on language than many other school districts, because so many immigrants live in the city.
"We are an international city. It would be a sin if we only offered Spanish because we have such a large Spanish-speaking population," she said.
Case in point are Juliana Santos, an 18-year-old senior from Brazil, and Amer Becirovic, 15, who was born in Germany after his parents fled Bosnia to escape the genocide. Both are taking German at Peabody High.
Becirovic moved to the United States when he was 2, but he still has family in Germany and plans to go to college there. "I plan on moving to Germany and majoring in electrical engineering," he said.
For Santos, German is her third language, along with her native Portuguese and English. She hopes to enter the Air Force after high school and be stationed in Germany. She attributes the success of the German program to continuity — the same teachers, same students all the way through.
"It's become sort of like a small German family," she said.
Peabody students begin learning a foreign language in sixth grade, and many continue through all four years of high school. Of the roughly 1,900 students at Peabody High, about 1,500 are enrolled in a foreign language course.
More and more, students are beginning to acknowledge language courses as more than just a requirement for college, Branquinho said.
"If you want to prepare students for the world market today, you have to invest in language," she said, "and I think Peabody has been doing that. No other school I know of provides seven languages. ... Our philosophy here has always been to serve our students and our students' needs."