Monticello High School French program’s future is uncertain

French is said to be the language of love, but it’s not getting as much love as it once did from Monticello’s high school students.
A total of 458 students are signed up to participate in the school’s Spanish world language program next year, but French, the only other language currently offered, has dipped to a new low enrollment of 78 students.
“We think we need to have a real serious discussion about our French program and where that’s going,” Johnson said during Monday evening’s school board meeting when this topic came up.
Because of the shrinking student participation numbers, the Monticello School Board took action Monday to reduce the high school French teacher’s position from a .8 position to only a .5. Superintendent Jim Johnson said he believes the decline in French enrollment is part of a wider trend rather than a school-specific problem.
“I think students are looking at what languages are used around the world, and what might benefit them in future careers and things like that,” he said. “There is a tendency to be drawn more towards the Spanish program.”
The high school’s French program used to require 1.5 staff positions to teach all the students who signed up for this language program.
This was reduced to 1.0 four to five years ago, and then two years ago the district had to reduce to a .8 position, also because of dropping enrollment. In comparison, the Spanish program requires three full-time staff members to run the program.
The district used to support three different foreign language programs, with German added to French and Spanish. German was cut over a decade ago, and now French is entering a time of uncertainty. Johnson said he does not want to see the district move to only offering one foreign language, as nearby Becker does, but whether or not French should fill that second spot remains to be seen. The addition of Chinese as a world language offering is increasing in popularity the past several years in other school districts, so this option will likely be a prime contender to fill the spot if district leaders decide to move away from French.
District leaders said they will be talking to kids and doing some surveying to see where students’ interests lie so a decision can be made at this time next year.
Johnson stressed that they would take steps to ensure current French students are not caught in the middle if a change is made.
“I don’t know if there will be [a change] or not, but we’ve seen a decrease, so that’s definitely something we need to look at,” Johnson said.
Foreign language options abound in some of the school districts closer to the metro area. Edina boasts seven different options: Spanish, French, German, American Sign Language, Japanese, Chinese and Latin. Hopkins, Wayzata and others in the more immediate metro area have between four and six world language offerings.
“It’s a whole different world there,” Johnson said in reference to these wealthier suburban districts, whose larger and more diverse tax bases bode well for their education funding.
Closer to home, the Elk River school district offers four language options: Spanish, French, German and Chinese; St. Michael-Albertville offers Spanish and Chinese and Big Lake offers Spanish and French.
In other business, the board:
• In what board chair Robbie Smith called the ‘worst meeting of the year,’ the board approved the termination of 17 probationary (non-tenured) teachers Monday evening. Superintendent Jim Johnson said these probationary teachers could be terminated for several reasons, including licensure, performance, lower enrollment in a certain area or budget. These teachers are terminated as of the end of this school year. Probationary teachers are those who have served less than three years in the district.
• Heard a superintendent update from Johnson, who said the district is gearing up to see a decent rate of growth for the third year in a row this fall when the 2013-14 school year begins. This is welcome news for the district after it struggled through many years of stagnating growth.
• Accepted a $1,500 donation from Deborah and Joseph Mahoney to Pinewood Elementary to be used for whatever needs the school chooses. They chose to add more access doors where teachers and staff could get into or out of the school with a key card.
• Heard an update on the middle school’s SSR (sustained silent reading) program. To implement this, the district moved school start time up five minutes to make more time for a 15-minute block of reading time at the start of the day. Middle school assistant principal Matt Coalwell said the program has gone well but not perfectly, citing the need for more books and more of a rush during the shortened M&M (homeroom) time and some unmotivated readers as some of the issues they have faced. Coalwell said they have been making adjustments and taking steps to solve these issues.
• Heard a budget update from business manager Tina Burkholder regarding the 2013-14 school year. Burkholder addressed small revisions to the budget in the food service fund, debt service fund and OPEB trust fund, and said the overall fund balance is expected to drop to $1,101,817 at the end of this fiscal year, June 30.
The next school board meeting will take place at 5 p.m. Monday, May 6.

Freelancer Meghan Gutzwiller covers education and the Monticello School District.