ROCKLAND, Maine — Rockland-area educators are criticizing the school district’s decision not to offer French or any other foreign language to elementary school students during the upcoming school year.
“This is terrible news for several reasons,” said Julia Schulz, who in 1986 founded the Penobscot School in Rockland, which offers language and cultural education. “Maine is a state where up to 30 percent of the population lists their ancestry as French or French-Canadian. The language is an essential part of our history and heritage.”
Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent John McDonald said last week that foreign languages are being eliminated only for 2016-17. He said the district was not satisfied with the program. One teacher taught French to third- and fourth-graders throughout the district and only did so for part of the year.
Fewer than 10 percent of Maine school districts offer foreign languages to elementary school students, according to Jay Ketner of the Maine Department of Education. Those lessons are often ones that have a tough time surviving budget cuts, he said Monday.
“For elementary programs [teaching a foreign language] to have a strong impact, students should have a minimum of 90 minutes of instructional time [per] week and classes should meet more than twice per week,” Ketner said.
McDonald said the specifics of what will be offered during the 2017-18 school year have not been determined.
Rockland’s decision to suspend its language program contrasts with neighboring Camden, where School Administrative District 28 teaches Spanish starting in kindergarten twice per week for 30 minutes. Those classes continue through fourth grade. In Camden middle schools, Spanish is taught about 45 minutes twice per week. In high school, foreign languages are optional.
McDonald said Camden has far more financial resources than RSU 13.
French and Spanish are the languages most commonly offered in Maine schools, Ketner said, adding that interest in Mandarin Chinese is rising.
“Language learning prepares current and future generations of students for the multilingual and multicultural world they will have to live and work in,” Ketner said.
He said learning a foreign language, especially in the early grades, improves cognitive abilities, problem solving skills and mental focus.
Kathleen Dunne, who taught foreign languages in RSU 13 until she retired in 2012, said it is distressing that the creation of RSU 13 from the merger of neighboring SAD 5 (Rockland area) and SAD 50 (Thomaston area) failed to boost foreign language education.
“The merger was supposed to have added more programs. The district is heading in the wrong direction,” Dunne said.