Students Committed to Foreign Language Learning Even When School System is Not

Students and teachers at a Tulsa, OK, high school show their commitment to foreign language learning after budget cuts forced early morning option. Here’s the article by Andrea Eger for Tulsaworld.com, January 19, 2013:

Since budget cuts forced Memorial High School to say “au revoir” to staffing positions for advanced foreign languages, getting up at the crack of dawn is one of the only options for students who want to earn credits in French 3 or 4.

Longtime Memorial French teacher Brenda Brake became the school’s only Spanish teacher this year, as well, but she volunteers her own time three days a week to offer advanced classes outside of the normal school day.

“I had 30 kids who wanted to enroll this year, and I could not stand to throw away all of their efforts over the last two years,” said “Madame Brake,” as her students call her.

Nearly an hour before sunrise Friday, Brake arrived to turn the lights on in her classroom and cue up her Smart Board. A few minutes after 7, she made the trek back downstairs to open the still-locked front doors for the last couple of students to straggle in.

The youngest in the class is freshman Elie Benarrous, who is continuing the education he began in Eisenhower International School’s French immersion program and followed through with at Thoreau Demonstration Academy.

“It looks good on a college resume, plus, I could use it if I ever go back to Europe,” he said.

The state Legislature allocated the same amount of state aid to public schools as they received the previous year, but because student enrollment is up – primarily at online education programs and new charter schools – schools wound up with less.

Tulsa Public Schools was initially faced with the prospect of slashing as many as 150 teaching positions for 2012-13 because of the end of federal Jobs Bill funding and declining enrollment from the conversion of two school sites to charter schools. But over the summer, Superintendent Keith Ballard managed to raise nearly $1.82 million in private donations to save 45 teaching positions and hold open a slew of vacant administrative positions to fund 19 more.

Asked about the situation at Memorial, Ballard said it is representative of the toll that years of state aid reductions has taken on course offerings and class sizes across the state.

“The public needs to remember that we went through extreme budget cuts and no funding has been restored, despite the fact that there is money in the state coffers. We are not even (receiving funding) at the 2008 level, and it’s 2013, for crying out loud,” he said.

Brake, who has worked for Tulsa Public Schools for 18 years, said she could never have fathomed the decline in staffing levels she has witnessed lately.

“This is my 10th year at Memorial,” she said. “When I came here, there were three Spanish teachers, an ELL (English Language Learner) teacher, a sign language teacher, a French teacher, a German teacher and a Latin teacher. Now all we have left are the classes I teach in French and Spanish and a Latin teacher across the hall.”

Numerous studies have demonstrated that learning a second language holds benefits for a student’s linguistic abilities, as well as their cognitive and creative abilities. Students who succeed in advanced foreign language courses also earn extra points toward their grade-point average and a special cord to be worn at graduation.

Brake also believes that the cuts threaten her students’ professional potential and narrow their world views.

“I took a class in ninth grade, and it completely changed my life because it opened up a window on the world that I had no idea existed before I studied French,” said Brake, who has traveled extensively and even lived for a time in France. “If you don’t know something about other parts of the world now, you’re really at a disadvantage. You can work in a foreign country through a computer now.

“All of the foreign countries stress language study, so we are really hindering our own students from advancing in our global society.”

Although she praises her students for their tenacity, they say she is the one who deserves credit.

“This shows the dedication she has to the students,” said junior Phillip VanDusen.

Zane Leach, also a junior, added, “She definitely deserves the title ‘Teacher of the Year,’ ” a schoolwide honor Brake received this year.

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