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Schools restore some K-5 world language classes after August hiring spree

Language classes are still cancelled for Pierce School students in grades K-3. Photo by Clare Ong
September 12, 2023

An August hiring spree will allow Brookline’s schools to avoid fully implementing a plan announced last month to eliminate six grades of language instruction this year, Deputy Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Jodi Fortuna said in an interview with Brookline.News Wednesday.

At Baker, Driscoll, Heath, and Lincoln, all students will receive language instruction this year. At Lawrence, Ridley, and Runkle, third through eighth graders will start the year with language instruction, while at Pierce, language instruction will be limited to fourth through eighth graders.

Despite the new hires, the district and the Brookline Educators Union remain at odds over key elements of the K-8 world language program, including workload and grade assignments, BEU President Justin Brown said.

The district’s update on the state of the K-8 world language program comes at the end of a summer of upheaval for the program.

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In June, world language teachers staged a sit-in at Town Hall to protest workloads that they said had caused nearly half of their colleagues to quit or take leave in the last two years. In early August, Superintendent Linus Guillory announced a contingency plan to eliminate world language instruction for kindergarten through fifth graders this year, citing a teacher shortage caused by these departures and an inability to hire replacements, due in part to a shortage of world language teachers.

Following the contingency plan announcement, the district was able to hire five new teachers, allowing it to maintain several grade levels, Fortuna said.

“We got really lucky,” Fortuna said. “As soon as a candidate would pop into our portal, we would jump on them and principals would interview them, and we moved to get them hired as quickly as we could.”

Six more Spanish teaching positions remain open, and the district will continue to attempt to fill them, Fortuna said. Principals have crafted schedules that make it possible to reinstitute language instruction during the school year.

Meanwhile, Brown, the teachers union president, listed several areas of dispute with the School Department over the program.

Many middle school teachers have been assigned to teach six sections this year, which exceeds the typical five-course workload for sixth through eighth grade teachers, Brown said. Some teachers have also been assigned to teach a wide swath of grades. One teacher, for instance, will teach 10 sections across grades three, four, six, and seven, Brown said.

Many teachers have also been reassigned to grade levels they are unfamiliar with teaching, which will add to their workload for the year, Brown said.

“Not only is there new curriculum to learn,” Brown said, “but you have to understand how a group of students at an unfamiliar grade level will interact with the learning, because they’re developmentally at a different place.”

The district and the union engaged in two multi-hour bargaining sessions in late August, reaching agreement on certain elements of the program, Brown said.

Language instruction in kindergarten through fifth grade will not begin until September 18, giving teachers of these grades two weeks to prepare. The district also agreed to give teachers with professional status the right to return to their original grade levels next year and to include teachers on any committees tasked with reviewing the program, Brown said.

Still, other aspects of the program remain unresolved in the union’s view.

The district, for instance, declined the union’s request for written assurance that all K-8 students would receive language instruction next year, according to Brown. The two sides also failed to come to an agreement about “what constitutes a fair workload” for a K-8 world language teacher, Brown said.

“The union feels that our work is not done,” Brown said. “Our fight will continue until we have written agreements from the district that protects our K-8 world language teachers from being further exploited.”

Guillory wrote in an emailed statement that administrators “are pleased that we were able to reach agreement with the BEU on a number of important topics pertaining to impact bargaining of World Language.”

“We look forward to continuing our productive conversations with the BEU on strengthening the [world language] program,” he wrote.

An external review of the world language program conducted last spring will be presented to the School Committee on September 28. Following that presentation, the School Committee intends to form a sub-committee to engage in a year-long redesign process for the program, Fortuna said.