Fairfax County, Virginia, Squashes Last-Minute Attempt to Eliminate Foreign Language

Naomi Nix for FortHuntPatch, February 4, 2011:

he Fairfax County School Board unanimously rejected a budget amendment Thursday night which would have eliminated foreign language in elementary schools for the next school year.

The amendment, proposed by school board member Martina Hone, would have shifted the $3.1 million dollars that currently funds Foreign Language in Elementary Schools(FLES) to the staffing reserve.

Currently 32 county elementary schools out of 139 offer FLES programs, which give half hour language instruction to students two to three times a week. The program, which includes seven languages, is separate from the school system’s partial immersion program that operates in 12 county schools.

The FLES amendment drew strong opinions from school board members, who said Hone should have introduced the idea of getting rid FLES prior to the school board meeting to give the board and the community time to debate issue. Though Hone submitted the amendment by Tuesday, the final deadline to submit such amendments, school board members said the subject had not come up in either of their budget work sessions this month.

“The amendment came after the work session. The public didn’t know this was happening until 48 hours ago,” said school board member Elizabeth Bradsher (Springfield), who is up for reelection in November.

School board members worried that Hone’s introduction of the FLES amendment damaged their reputation and hurt their relationship with community members because the issue was not brought up sooner. To support this point, school board member Tessie Wilson read e-mails from citizens, which accused the board of lacking transparency. In the last few days school board members said they have gotten “hundreds of emails” from members of the community who were concerned about the possible elimination of the FLES program.

“My sincere apologies to….people who thought we were going to pull the plug. We are not going to pull the plug,” said Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill), who recently announced he will not be running for reelection after 16 years on the board.

Hone prefaced her introduction to the amendment by saying she “harbored no illusions” it would pass. In a passionate and at times tearful appeal to school board members, Hone argued that there are some schools, particularly Title 1 schools, that might be able to use the money to help struggling or disadvantaged youth.  The school system will lose $8.2 million in Title I American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds included in the county’s grants fund in fiscal year 2012.

“In front of foreign language is making sure that no child gets left behind,” she said. “We have an obligation to be true to our word even when it’s unpopular.”

But school board members were unconvinced, arguing that FLES helps all students, regardless of socio-economic background.

“We have a program that costs 3 million dollars a year that serves 17,000 students that’s about 200 dollars a kid,” said Gibson.  “It’s not a question of whether we are helping poor kids.”

But Hone, who called the FLES program a “sacred cow” that “enjoys a sheltered position,” said the board could refocus those resources on programs that target the needs of students at risk for dropping out.

Earlier in the night she proposed an amendment that would have directed the superintendent to identify possible sources of funding for elementary school intervention programming for struggling students, such as summer school. That amendment, along with two others requesting a study of and increased resources for students in the disciplinary system, were also rejected by the board.

“I have been on this board three years and this is the first time that the board has brought me to tears, ” said Hone, who is up for reelection in November.

Advocates for FLES argue that investment in foreign language skills at an early age is critical to meet the school board’s goal that all students graduate with the ability to speak two languages. School board members said that if it weren’t for budget cuts they would, in fact, support expanding FLES and a host of other programs that have been cut or stalled.

“We would like to continue preparing students to exit high school with the tools to succeed in our multicultural society and ever shrinking world,” coordinator of world languages Paula Patrick said in an email Thursday night. “Eliminating any model would prevent thousands of students from reaching the school board goal [to be able to communicate in at least two languages]. ”

“I’m happy that they did not support the amendment,” said Sandy Knox, an organizer of Fairfax Flags, an activist group dedicated to preserving foreign languages in public schools.

Last year the FLES program and the partial-immersion program were at risk for getting cut, but county activists were able to galvanize enough support among parents and community members to keep both programs, said Knox.

“This is not really about hypocrisy, said Bradsher.  Last year “we made a commitment to those parents to continue to this program.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “Fairfax County, Virginia, Squashes Last-Minute Attempt to Eliminate Foreign Language

  1. Debby Dobbs

    Hats off to your Board! There was a similar situation in my district with the removal of middle school Spanish as a required core subject. Middle school principals decided as a group to remove Spanish as a core subject. I was told it was a “done” deal. When members of the Board and the community found out, a committee was convened, there was a study and our World language program is in tact. What the community and parents aspire and consider valuable for their students should never be passed over when making these decisions.
    Debby Dobbs
    World Language/ELL Content Specialist
    Edmond Public Schools
    Edmond, Oklahoma

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