Middle school language plans nixed for lack of teacher, then cost

Early goal in RSU 71 left behind, while district makes good on others
By Ethan Andrews | Feb 15, 2017

Belfast — Two years after school board and community members pushed to bring foreign language courses back to the middle school, sixth through eighth grades are still 100-percent English.

A world language teaching position was one of three posts "restored" by the school board in Regional School Unit 71's inaugural 2015-16 budget. Foreign language classes at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast had been cut under the nine-town RSU 20 regime.

After the five towns — Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Searsmont and Swanville — successfully withdrew and formed RSU 71, board members sought to differentiate the new district by restoring three positions: one elementary school art teacher, one music teacher at the high school and one world language teacher at the middle school.

The art and music positions were filled quickly, but a qualified language teacher proved elusive, maybe more so because school officials wanted a teacher certified to teach two languages: French and Spanish. Last year, the board abandoned the search and cut the world language teacher's salary from the budget. Chairman David Crabiel said the decision was about saving money and not for lack of interest in the language position.

"The board has not said they don't want that position. It's just that in the '16-'17 year we didn't put it in the budget," he said. "It becomes about balancing the tax assessment, the needs of the school. Every budget season becomes a back and forth and what's the best course for us to do."

Today, RSU 71 students get their first classroom exposure to a second language in high school, which is nine years later than their neighbors to the south in Camden-Rockport, Lincolnville, Hope and Appleton, where students start French or Spanish classes in kindergarten.

At Lincolnville Central School, students in lower grades start slowly with language classes a couple of times a week, Principal Paul Russo said.

"I think the general feeling with the people has been that offering a foreign language in elementary school and middle school, the exposure to language and culture is really the point," he said. "Our goal is not so much fluency as exposure and understanding of different cultures."

That exposure has mostly been limited to the handful of wealthier districts, according to Aaron Henderson, a Spanish teacher at Camden-Rockport Middle School.

Maine law requires students to demonstrate proficiency in at least one language in addition to English to earn a high school diploma. The Department of Education defines proficiency, in part, as the ability to have "concrete exchanges necessary for survival in the target culture," including "personal information related to self, family, home, daily activities, interests and personal preferences, as well as physical and social needs, such as food, shopping, travel, and lodging."

Many districts are able to hit this mark with several years of world language classes in high school.

As in Belfast, students of RSU 20 — now a two-town district of Searsport and Stockton Springs — get their first foreign language classes in high school, where students can take French or Spanish. In the 11-town Western Waldo County district RSU 3, students get some exposure to a second language in middle school during computer-based language lab classes.

Henderson wasn't surprised to hear that RSU 71 had trouble finding a dual-certified teacher. Even finding a teacher for a single world language is hard, he said. Maine doesn't have an abundance of native speakers, and those who are here don't necessarily have the credentials to teach in public schools.

"I tell kids, if you're good at Spanish, there's always demand for Spanish teachers," Henderson said. "It's going to be a growth industry for the next 50 years anyway. No matter who's president at the moment, they can't change the demographic trends."

Appleton Village School Principal Susan Stillwell attested to the demand for Spanish teachers. The K-8 school lost its Spanish teacher and had trouble finding a replacement because the job was only 60-percent time, and help wanted ads didn't attract a replacement. Both the previous teacher and the current one came to the school by word-of-mouth referrals, she said.

New positions in RSU 71 might prove to be a harder sell in coming years as the novelty of the new district wears off. Extra-curricular activities, arts, languages and other courses outside the math- and science-based core curriculum are often targeted when school districts need to save money.

Stillwell said year-to-year upkeep of school buildings is another common target for budget cuts.

"What has historically been cut and come back to bite a lot of schools was facilities and maintenance," Stillwell said. "But there's a point when that comes back and you have significant facilities issues if you don't maintain your building."

With a high school renovation bond approved by voters last November and continued talk of a bond to improve the Tri-town elementary schools in Searsmont and Morrill, that's an area in which RSU 71 is investing.

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