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Schools Prepare to Cut Foreign Language Classes

"They are setting the kids up for failure," says one parent

Updated April 28, 2011 at 5:20 p.m.

As one of the city’s most sought after public high schools, George Washington High School in San Francisco has long enjoyed a reputation for ambitious foreign language programs, helping students gain admission to prestigious universities.

But that distinguished track record may be threatened by even deeper state budget cuts.

The 2,200-student school may cut some of its advanced offerings in foreign languages next school year. There will be no third-year of Spanish, French or any other language that the school currently offers. Across the Bay Area, school districts including San Francisco Unified, Oakland Unified and Cupertino Union, are sending pink slips to foreign language teachers.

Parents and teachers worry that eliminating foreign language courses will make it more difficult for students to gain admission to more competitive schools.  

“Our kids will be competing with students from other schools to go to top schools like UC Berkeley, and they will have a hard time because they will only go in with two years of language,” said Jay Kozak, a counselor at George Washington High School. “They will be going up against kids who have had three, four or five years of languages.”

Theresa Pasion said Washington High School’s language cuts will jeopardize her daughter’s chances of getting into college. She said her daughter, Theodora, an 11th grader finishing her second year of Spanish, is devastated.

“I felt betrayed by the school district,” said Pasion. “She deserves to have a third year of Spanish. We are not staying competitive, they are not looking at the big picture. They are setting the kids up for failure.”

Cuts to foreign language departments vary. In the San Francisco, the district has sent out pink slips to six instructors who teach, Spanish, Mandarin, Italian and Cantonese, according to the teachers' union, the United Educators of San Francisco. Cupertino Union notified one middle school French teacher. And Oakland Unified School District says it intends to send layoff notices to one French teacher and one Spanish teacher.

School administrators blame the state's budget crisis for the cuts.

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to put three measures on the ballot that would extend income and sales taxes and the vehicle license fees. Brown claims the state will have to cut or eliminate many critical programs if the taxes aren't extended. Republicans have so far resisted the tax extension plan.

It is not clear if or when an election would be held. 

The San Francisco Unified School District says its faces a $25 million budget shortfall through June 2012 if voters don't approve the tax extensions. The Oakland Unified School District is in a similar quandary. With a $30 million budget shortfall for next year, district officials said they had to spread the cuts around.

“We are extremely distressed about our budget,” said Troy Flint, a spokesman for the Oakland Unified School District. “In an increasingly interconnected world, foreign languages are a necessary. But almost every department took a hit.”

As for the language cuts, San Francisco officials said they shared teachers’ and parents’ concerns, but each school decides which programs it wants to cut.

“We give them some leeway on how they want to handle their budgets,” said Rachel Norton, a member of the San Francisco Board of Education. “It’s all about priorities, and we are all having to make unpalatable decisions.”

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