Thursday, July 20, 2006

Chinese-French deja vu

You know that feeling, the one you can only say what it is in French? A lot of folks over here probably are feeling it.

Everyone's debating once again whether the Stowe school system should replace its French program with Mandarin Chinese. That's because the school board is holding a special meeting Monday, July 24, to reconsider its decision. School board members say they're re-convening in response to an outcry from the community — letters to the editor, a student petition, and people posting in the Reader's Forum — some supporters and others critics of the decision. Instead of ignoring all that, the issue is back on the table. Cool.

What's been interesting from my vantage point is the way in which the debate has broadened its focus in the last several months. Many people have questioned larger issues of teaching foreign language in middle and high school, and what exactly the goal of such programs should be. Is it about preparing students to take foreign language in college, or just planting the seeds of curiosity? What's the most important factor in deciding what foreign language to offer: the fact French is a much more practical and widely-used language in the Northeast; or that Chinese is quickly becoming (if it's not already) the language of global commerce in the 21st century?

For that matter, some people have asked, why does the community have to decide between two languages at all? It seems the school board — wary of adding onto a $8 million-plus budget that's already multiplied many times more in tax dollars by the state government — doesn't want to go there. A lot of local taxpayers who've seen their property-tax bills double or triple in the last decade want to see school spending go down, not up. It would be interesting to know, for instance, exactly how much it would cost to keep Stowe's French program as it is now (hire a new full-time teacher) AND start the beginnings of a Chinese program — $25,000, $50,000, $100,000? I don't know, but that may come up Monday. Reinstating seventh-grade French would cost an estimated $14,000.

Unfortunately, I won't be there; I'll be scribbling away on the Stowe Select Board. Be sure to check it out if you're in town. Reporter Jesse Schloff will be there to cover the action. It should be — as people euphemistically like to say — interesting


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