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K-8 World Language Program at “crisis point,” teachers say

The John D. Runkle School in Brookline. Photo by John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons
July 21, 2023  Updated July 23, 2023 at 7:42 p.m.

Nearly half the teachers in Brookline’s K-8 World Language Program have quit or taken leave in the past two years, according to a group of language teachers who are calling attention to workloads they say have become unsustainable and put the entire program at risk.

Proposed staffing cuts and teaching assignments for next year that would force some teachers to teach up to six courses or separate grade levels have pushed the program to “a crisis point,” according to the teachers, who staged a sit-in at Town Hall last month.

The program, which launched in 2008 following a town override, was lauded as a model for elementary school language education. Currently, it offers Spanish, Chinese and French classes to students. Instruction starts at twice per week in the lower grades and increases to daily by grade seven.

Over the years, the program has faced challenges, including threatened cuts in 2015 and 2020.

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Teachers and their union leadership say the town’s proposal last month to cut the equivalent of two out of about 26 full-time teaching positions would further exacerbate workloads that have steadily increased and driven 13 of 29 teachers to quit or take leave since the 2021-22 school year.

As the district looked for ways to meet a $1.85 million budget deficit this year, Deputy Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Jodi Fortuna said the K-8 world language program was targeted in part because its high rate of turnover made it possible to trim without requiring layoffs.

But following escalating pressure from teachers, Fortuna said she has prepared a revised proposal that would restore the program’s positions. The teachers rejected her proposal because they say it doesn’t solve underlying scheduling issues. The two sides continue to negotiate next year’s schedules as the district faces questions about the broader sustainability of the program.

Are world languages core subjects?

The Brookline School district and K-8 world language teachers have been at odds since last summer, when the Brookline Educators Union demanded to bargain over changes to teachers’ workloads.

The union argued that assigning some middle school teachers six courses violated a long-standing five-course cap, and complained about schedules that changed from year to year without warning, a lack of time to physically transition between classes, and course assignments that forced teachers to teach a wide span of grades.

After one unsuccessful bargaining session, the district refused to negotiate further and the union ultimately filed a grievance which was denied.

With the release of next year’s schedules, the dispute over how much the district can require of its world language teachers has reemerged.

The contractual disagreement between teachers and the district hinges in part on whether seventh and eighth grade world language classes are considered core subjects, like math or social studies, or specials, like art or physical education. That distinction matters because the five course cap applies only to core subject teachers, said Mark Goldner, chair of the union’s Grievance Committee.

The union believes the grading responsibilities and daily class meetings make seventh and eighth grade world language classes more similar to core subject classes than specials. They also cite a state law that describes world languages as “core subjects.”

The district acknowledges that there has been “an increased expectation for work” from world language teachers, Fortuna said, but she argues that the meeting frequency and slightly shorter classes in the lower grades make the program more akin to a special than a core subject.

In seventh and eighth grades, world language courses are generally the same length and frequency as other subjects, but Fortuna said the district has elected to take a “K-8 approach” to the classification.

Tough workloads, high turnover

For many world language teachers, the core subject versus special debate underscores what they feel is a lack of understanding of and value placed on their work by district leadership, and, in some cases, fellow teachers, students, and parents

Shenandoah Paun, who has taught K-4 Spanish at the Runkle School for ten years, says world language teachers “feel like second-class citizens sometimes in our own schools.”

“There is a perception by some teachers, not all, that our job isn’t that hard, that it is very easy, because we don’t have to do some of the things that they have to do,” Paun said.

Sarah Moghtader, who has taught middle school French on and off in Brookline for nearly 20 years, said middle school world language teachers’ exclusion from team meetings has made her job particularly challenging.

“I didn’t have time to catch up with colleagues and find out about students,” Moghtader said. “I didn’t have time to align my curriculum with what was going on in other classes. And I just wasn’t able to be the same teacher that I wanted to be.”

Citing her workload, Moghtader has decided not to return to teach next year.

The future of the program

The two sides are still trying to find agreement on a plan for next year.

Simultaneously, the district is working to hire six new world language teachers, but Fortuna said they are facing a dearth of qualified candidates that extends beyond a general teacher shortage.

“We’ve actually started contingency planning for if we don’t have enough teachers to cover the sections we have because of resignations and leaves that teachers are taking,” Fortuna said.

As the district looks at a broader redesign of the program over the next year, administrators may consider raising the grade level at which language instruction begins or eliminating language choice for sixth through eighth graders, Fortuna said.

For their part, the K-8 world language teachers are also taking a long-term view of the program in their negotiations with the district this summer.

“Our goal is to make this program thrive,” Paun said. “We need administrators, we need central office, we need our colleagues in our buildings to really understand this program and see the value that it offers and think about ways to embrace it.”