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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 30, 2011

Change the rules for the sake of the kids

The Guilderland School District is in a bind, a bind shared by many in these tough economic times. While closing a $4 million gap in the budget for the upcoming school year, the district made across-the-board cuts. In the last two years, close to 100 Guilderland employees have lost their jobs. That included cuts to the foreign language department.

While the nascent elementary-school Spanish program was cut, students and parents spoke out to keep the sixth-grade foreign-language program at the middle school. It’s not required by the state but, as many have pointed out, it probably has much to do with Guilderland students scoring so highly on foreign language Regents exams in high school.

The latest Guilderland school report card showed that student proficiency in French, German, and Spanish was 100 percent in the 2009-10 school year.

“I’m a German student,” Joe Giordano, a sixth-grader at Farnsworth Middle School, told the school board at a budget hearing this spring when the proposal was to cut the program in half to 20 weeks. “I love German,” said Giordano. “To take that and cut it in half would be like cutting my life in half.”

The year before, when German was on the chopping block, a diverse group had rallied for the importance of the language and had prevailed. Many of those students and parents praised the school’s German teacher, Christine Connor, who was born and raised in Germany.

The sixth-grade foreign-language program was preserved for the upcoming school year. But who will be teaching the classes? The German teacher won’t be teaching German and four Spanish teachers will be teaching French and German.

“The fundamental issue,” explained Superintendent Marie Wiles, “is the difference between seniority areas and certification areas.”

Certification in New York State for teaching a foreign language is specific; in other words, a teacher might be certified to teach French, or Spanish, or German. The same is true for science; a teacher is certified, for example, to teach chemistry, or biology, or physics. But layoffs come under the general umbrella of foreign language or of science.

“It creates all kinds of havoc,” said Wiles.

Indeed, it has at Guilderland. Because Connor was a part-time teacher, she had no seniority. “Part-time teachers are the first to go and then the ones with the least seniority,” said Wiles. “We have to play by the rules even when the impact is not the best for kids….When we made district-wide reductions, we had no choice but to let her go. It doesn’t matter that we need a German teacher and she is a German teacher.”

A French teacher also certified to teach German will teach four of the five German classes. Four sixth-grade classes — one in German and three in French — will be taught by four teachers certified only in Spanish. The State Education Department allows teachers to teach one class out of their certified areas.

Guilderland is trying to make the best of a bad situation. Wiles said, “This is the very first level of instruction…It’s quite basic.” She said that the retiring head of the foreign language department said the Spanish teachers were excited about their assignment, and they will be offered training over the summer and will work with teachers certified in the languages they will be teaching.

Wiles stressed, “We’re absolutely not planting them in classrooms and leaving them…We will support them every step of the way.”

She concluded, “I think the quality of our instructional staff will shine through.”

We’re casting no aspersions on the teachers at Guilderland. They are making the best of a bad situation, one that is not their fault. But think about the superintendent’s words: “We have to play by the rules even when the impact is not the best for kids.”

Where light needs to shine is at the State Education Department and on the labor unions. This problem has been around for decades. With so many school districts now faced with declining aid and rising costs, and now a tax cap to boot, many jobs are being cut. More layoffs will follow.

Now is the time to align seniority and certification requirements so that schools can make more sensible decisions.

Such alignment would best serve teachers, students, and the public.

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