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US Schools Weigh Foreign Language Classes Against Dwindling Resources

High schools in the United States offer foreign language classes to their students, but not with the same kind of focus as schools in many other countries. In fact, most Americans do not learn to speak another language fluently in public school classrooms.

Some states are pushing for more foreign language education. But in others, officials have considered cutting back on language requirements. Among them is Georgia, where Joshua Levs reports.

At Colombia High School in DeKalb County, just outside Atlanta, 19 students are following the instructions of Spanish teacher, Phyllis Thompson-Willis.

Dorthia Derrico, a 16-year-old junior, said her second-year Spanish class is one of her favorites. And she thinks it'll be helpful in her future career. "I want to be an attorney," she said. "Not many lawyers know Spanish. People who speak Spanish, who's going to help them when they need a case? I may take two or three other languages so I can help people when they need help with their cases."

High school students like Dorthia take two years of a foreign language as part of an academic program that gives them college preparatory seals on their diplomas. That distinguishes Georgia from more than two dozen other states that have no foreign-language requirements for graduation. But that could change. Last year, Georgia's board of education discussed eliminating the use of college preparatory seals, which could lead to the elimination of foreign language classes.

"That started the controversy in Georgia about should we keep it should we get rid of it," recalled Kathy Cox, who took office as Georgia's School Superintendent in January. She says that if the requirement is dropped, many students would choose not to take foreign language, even as an elective. Then the classes would dwindle in size. And cash-strapped schools could stop offering them. "When you have decreasing enrollment you lay off teachers, you lay off programs, you cut back," she explained.

Not surprisingly, foreign language teachers around the state. such as Phyllis Thompson-Willis, spoke up in favor of keeping the requirement.

"You know, the world is becoming a smaller place. More people are here from other countries than were in past years. So why would we take away our abilities to communicate with these people?" she asked.

Ms. Thompson-Willis said foreign language education is as essential as math class. Her colleague at Colombia High School, French teacher Malik Guetarni, says foreign language is a regular part of the curriculum at private schools, and public school students should not be at a disadvantage. He stresses to his students that knowing a second language is critical for getting a job.

"I tell them if tomorrow they need job at Coca-Cola [which is headquartered in neighboring Atlanta] and line up for employment, they'll probably be picked over someone who speaks only English," he said.

Mr. Guetarni also says current events such as the war on terrorism are reminders that Americans need to communicate with a multi-lingual world, noting "We're going to be in need of people speaking different languages."

Many students at Columbia High agree. And 11th grader Anna Phipps says there's another important reason for studying Spanish, French, German, or Russian. She says the classes introduce students to other cultures. "I think it should be a requirement because students need to get a little bit of culture in with everything they do every day," she said.

Educators also point to studies showing that students who take foreign language classes do better in other subjects, especially English, because they give more thought to their use of language.

For now, Georgia's high school foreign language requirement is likely to remain in place. A spokesman for the state's new governor says there are no immediate plans for any changes. And School Superintendent Kathy Cox supports language programs, saying "I think we should be emphasizing foreign languages to more of our students, not less."

After all, she says, students don't learn that much in just two years. But it's unlikely Georgia will be able to expand its programs. With a nationwide recession and a large deficit in the state budget, schools will have to cut back. And it won't be just at the high school level. Ms. Cox says a successful pilot program designed to teach foreign languages to elementary school children may have to be dropped, making it even more important to keep foreign language education in high schools.