Tigerlily Theo Hopson
Student doing French classwork. Picture taken by Andy Xie.
On Monday, December 9th, East Side juniors filed into their French classes as the rain poured down outside. Mutters of “Where’s Richard?” circled around the room. Assistant Principal Joe Vincente entered and explained how Richard was discharged because administrators did not feel the current French class had the “quality of instruction” they were looking for. But, what does this mean for students in this class? Is this an opportunity for East Side to finally flesh out its language program?
East Side has never had a strong language program. “At the end of the day, something has gotta give,” Principal Mark Federman said when asked about East Side’s foreign language. Incorporating a broader language program beyond 11th grade could mean 9th and 10th grade students would get fewer choices, fewer extracurriculars, shortened classes, fewer studio choices, would possibly have to give up a double block of English, and plus it could cost potentially $250,000.
11th graders are grateful for all East Side provides, but the students who were interviewed felt frustrated by not having the option of Spanish this semester. More than half of East Side’s student body identify as Hispanic. One junior from the Latinx community explained how she wishes she could take higher level Spanish classes because even though she has the basics of the Spanish language, she longs to become more fluent. “Everyone else in my family speaks Spanish. I want to be able to communicate with them!” she exclaimed.
Others reiterated the same view. “I don’t want to sound like a gringo,” one student said when she expressed her desire to have a more concrete foundation in the language her whole family speaks. Many kids with Spanish speaking family members were never fully taught the language at home. Delving into their roots by learning the language their family speaks is important to them.
Richard had taught at East Side for four years, and was the learning specialist for Yolanda's 10th-grade history class last year. In an interview, he said that since he knew French fluently, Mark wanted to take advantage of his “skill in that discipline.” Plus, East Side was in “desperate need” of a teacher. This was Richard’s first year of teaching French. Weeks before his leave, Richard said he thought East Side’s language program was in a stage of development, and that “we are still ironing out some issues.” He wished kids could have had more choice, because some kids were more interested in French than others, making it difficult to teach.
With Richard’s absence, Mark and Joe are doing everything they can to find a language teacher. Mark says his biggest regret is not being able to give Latinx students who speak Spanish at home more opportunities, such as Spanish literature, AP Spanish, or classes that strengthen a student’s writing in formal Spanish. “That feels important, and I feel remiss in not being able to provide that experience for some of our Latinx students.”
Ultimately Mark says he would like to also have a part-time French teacher and an option of AP Spanish, but right now he is aiming to have a full-time Spanish teacher on staff who will teach two to three beginner classes as well as advanced level classes on Spanish film and literature. Right now, resumes of possible Spanish teachers are being looked at.
One concern for students now is how the current lack of language credits will look on their college applications. Mark says he has spoken with multiple college reps over the years, and “they said the truth is that in New York State they are seeing students walking out of even four years of a language certainly not fluent… [and most] are being put into first year or second year at best” once they reach college. He says there is a problem with the whole system, not just East Side. Joe echoed this same sentiment, “With all respect to schools across the country trying to do language instruction, you really learn a language by being immersed in it.” Mark says his long term goal is to develop a summer immersion program as an option for students interested in learning a language.
William Short, a college admissions director from St. Lawrence University, a private college in upstate New York, said that “I think it’s very important for everyone to learn at least one language in addition to their first.” He communicated that if a student takes more than the required minimum of any subject area, such as language, that is certainly an impressive factor in a student’s application, but he recognizes that some schools have more opportunities than others.
Craig Broccoli, Associate Director of Admissions from Binghamton University, says that “We look at students transcripts in context to what the school has to offer.” He also stated that if a student is from a Spanish speaking family and is “looking for a new language opportunity, this [high school language] could be a time to branch out. If they are looking to become fluent in a language they have familiarity with, that is fine too!”
This October, my brother attended the East Side open house, and listened as Joe repeated how if there was one weakness East Side had, it would be its language program. In the three-year span since I first sat in the auditorium, to when my brother did, there has not been much improvement when it comes to language.
Students acknowledge that resources are tight, but as part of being an upstander, they also want to call for change. As the last week has shown, administrators, like Mark and Joe, are listening to this student voice, and are working hard to ensure a Spanish class is offered. Joe sent out an email asking for students to be a part of a hiring committee for the next language teacher, which is another opportunity for students who want to ask East Side to do what it always does-- the impossible. In this case, the impossible is giving students the opportunity to learn and strengthen their knowledge of a language intertwined with who they are.