A Phaseout of French? Sifting Fact and Rumor.

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007

It's one of the more well-traveled rumors among Montgomery parents: The county school system may be planning to phase out French, at one school, or at four, or across the county, possibly to make way for more students to study Chinese.

This much is true: Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg is, in fact, eliminating French, reportedly for lack of interest among students and parents.

But that is where undisputed fact ends. School system officials and a clutch of impassioned parents bitterly disagree over the motive behind Ridgeview's retreat from the language of Balzac and Proust; parents suspect a broader plan, and officials claim there is none.

"They're just trying to fade it out," said Giulianna Capurro of Rockville, the mother of a rising sixth-grader at Earle B. Wood Middle School in Rockville, who believes the school plans to eliminate French.

All high schools and nearly all middle schools in the county offer French, a language that has struggled to keep its footing amid perceptions that other languages, particularly Spanish, may serve a more practical purpose in an increasingly bilingual society. The trend is evident in Southern California and South Florida, where, by the end of the last decade, Spanish teachers outnumbered French teachers four or five to one. Lately, the Bush administration has been pushing for more Chinese instruction in American schools.

The rumor, spread mostly via e-mail and word of mouth, has it that school officials wish to hasten the decline of French by systematically phasing it out of a few middle schools, a move that would eventually soften demand in high schools. The presumed motive is to position Chinese as the foreign language of the future.

Parents, joined in this effort by the French Embassy, have identified four middle schools where they believe French-language instruction has been targeted: Ridgeview, Wood and Col. E. Brooke Lee and A. Mario Loiederman middle schools in Silver Spring.

"It's always a pity to eliminate an international language from an international curriculum," said Catherine Petillon, attache for educational affairs at the French Embassy. "It's a pity because Montgomery County has a very high level of education."

School system officials flatly deny any concerted plan to phase out French, in those schools or any others. Of the four middle schools cited by parents, only Ridgeview is planning to eliminate French, said Brian Edwards, school system spokesman. Loiederman isn't offering French, because it has a schoolwide arts focus, Edwards said.

"Neither of those schools will be offering Chinese in its place," he added, in an e-mail.

Wood will continue to offer French, Edwards said. Lee may eliminate French, based on parent demand.

"Foreign language class offerings are driven by student choice and enrollment," he wrote. "If they do not sign up for an elective language course in French, then we will not offer the class. It's that simple: Not enough interest equals no course."

Much of the parent intrigue centers on Wood: A registration form for next fall lists Spanish and Chinese -- but not French -- as the foreign languages available to sixth-grade students who are at a high reading level. All three languages are available to students in seventh grade.

Capurro said she called the office at Wood and was told by a staffer that the school is not offering French in sixth grade. Other parents claim to have had similar experiences at Wood and elsewhere but refused to be quoted by name, saying they feared such an act would be viewed as hostile by school administrators.

"We are bilingual at home, English and Spanish," Capurro said. "I consider it a waste of time for her to take Spanish, because she already knows it. Chinese, that's the only other choice."

Edwards said in an e-mail that Wood "will absolutely offer French next year to rising sixth-graders."

He said the school has traditionally enrolled students in French in seventh grade and is actually trying to "ramp up" its French program because it feeds into Rockville High School, which is applying to join the International Baccalaureate program, of which French is a component.

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