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Shelby County Schools' elementary and middle school world language teachers hold signs in protest of the budget cuts affecting the program.

Shelby County Schools’ elementary and middle school world language teachers hold signs in protest of the budget cuts affecting the program.

Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN

American Foreign Language Council encourages SCS not to reduce world language classes

As the Shelby County School Board prepares to pass its 2014-15 budget this month, one of the proposed cuts to reduce the number of world language courses in elementary and middle schools has caught the attention of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, ACTFUL.

“Our position is that learning a foreign language early is critically important for students,” said Marty Abbott, executive director of the ACTFUL. “They would be making a mistake if they eliminate or reduce world language classes for students.  We believe the benefits of a child learning a foreign language outweighs the costs.”

Abbott said she learned about SCS’s proposal to reduce the number of world language classes after reading an online news article.  She said the organization is willing to write letters advocating early foreign language learning  to SCS leaders as well as send a representative to address the board in person.

“Research shows students make cognitive gains when exposed to foreign language at an early age,” Abbott said.  “They’re better problem solvers because they’re able to look at issues from several different angles.  Students learning a foreign language also have higher academic results and score higher on standardized tests.”

In Shelby County Schools’ budget proposal,  21 world language teacher positions would be eliminated, which would save $1.8 million. Two elementary schools – Riverwood and Snowden –  and three middle schools – Craigmont, Highland Oaks, Sherwood –  stand to lose their world language programs entirely in the budget proposal.

The district is facing a loss of teachers, students, revenue and 33 school buildings to six municipal school districts in Bartlett, Collierville, Arlington, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington starting this summer. The changes have reduced SCS’s budget  from $1.2 billion to $961 million.  Every department in the district was asked to make 20 percent cut to the budget.

SCS world language advisor Alyssa Villarreal expressed concern about how the cuts would impact her department in her presentation to board members during a retreat last month.

“If the classes are cut now, then I’m concerned that students will have less access to foreign language,” Villarreal said last month.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said during last month’s retreat that he found it hard to justify investing in world language courses at schools where students were under performing in core subjects of math and reading.

Hopson argued that in some of the district’s elementary and middle schools with world language programs were not outperforming schools without the program.

Abbott said research does show that students who learn a foreign language early on  perform better in their native language and other subjects.

Hopson said he didn’t support using additional funds to maintain the district’s world language courses instead of reduce them, especially at schools where students are struggling in the core subjects of math and reading.

Michele Ransom, a Craigmont Middle Spanish teacher, said world language programs for elementary and middle schools started as an initiative of Memphis City Schools about 10 years ago and received national recognition.

Prior to the Memphis City and Shelby County schools merger last year, the number of world language teacher positions  in MCS began to decline over the past four years.

Ransom said the program has had a positive impact on her students.

“Studies show that people who are bilingual can earn one-third more than a person who doesn’t speak a foreign language,” she said.