A World Class Education without World Languages?

School Board votes unanimously to remove French and German programs in middle schools


Students wield signs and slogans outside of the February School Board meeting.

Madelyn Anderson, Opinions Editor

Les langues du monde sont essentielles pour l’éducation. Weltsprachen sind entscheidend für Bildung. Los idiomas del mundo son fundamentales para la educación.

World languages are critical to education.

With advancements in technology and communication leaving individuals across continents more connected than ever before, language seems to be one of the only obstacles to a truly global world.

On a local level, it’s no secret that the Millard Public School District has been experiencing a budget crisis. With the levy override and cuts to elementary and high schools already prevalent, the sixth through eighth grade schedules were next on the chopping block.

A Middle Level Schedule Committee proposed several courses of action for review at February’s School Board meeting. Options were focused mainly on combining Reading and English classes, moving from an eight to a seven period day and adding late starts to mirror the high schools on Monday mornings. Schedule changes will result in an extra 10 minutes in each class beginning next fall, adding around a month of instructional time per year.

While the proposals were rooted in increased instructional time, rigor and efficiency through the elimination of one period, the majority of the controversy is in the removal of the French and German programs at the middle school level.

Millard Public Schools Superintendent Jim Sutfin gave a straightforward opening message to the board meeting.

“Our achievement at the middle level is flat and we have got to move the needle,” Sutfin said. “Even in the best of budget times [the elimination of French and German] is my recommendation. This change does not prevent any [students] from getting where they want to get.”

The proposition sparked outrage in the hearts of foreign language lovers across the district. Originating with Millard South senior Hannah Grove, the MPS high schools put aside their differences to protest for world languages. Around 20 students from schools across the district gathered in the lobby before the board meeting, wielding creative signs with heartfelt messages scrawled in several languages.

Senior Ashton Koch was one of seven high school students that voiced their opinions in a speech for the community. As a French student for the past seven years, Koch is incredibly passionate about the benefits of linguistic diversity.

“World language takes you out of such a small area like Omaha, Nebraska and opens up cultures and different parts of the world,” Koch said. “Getting involved, even on a lower political scale like the school board, is important for young people to be exposed to the world.”

Parents, teachers and business leaders alike joined forces with the students to do what they could to stop the change. Fourteen individuals gathered courage to speak to the school board about their concerns. From a German immigrant, to students who travel and study abroad, to the vice president of a foreign-focused company in Omaha, passion resonated from everyone in the room.

Everyone except the school board members.  

In a unanimous vote, the board decided to eliminate the French and German programs from the Millard middle schools in favor of a uniform Spanish class requirement.

Although French and German classes will still be available later in the educational process, many students and high school foreign language teachers are concerned that soon-to-be-freshman will have no incentive to switch languages after three years of prior instruction.

With Spanish being the only option at a young age, students are less likely to say “bonjour” to a new language than “adios” to an increasingly familiar one.

For a lot of students, foreign language is more than a class. It’s a gateway to culture, travel and studying abroad. Koch spent the summer of her junior year interacting with locals in Paris, as she hopes to minor in French and pursue a career in international law. Many individuals share similar global-minded aspirations, and taking away the foundational years of middle school foreign language could put Millard students at a disadvantage in the global world.

“Students take languages for different reasons,” Millard West Principal Greg Tiemann said. “A lot of people take German and French out of interest or heritage or they want to go into areas where the language is necessary in a career.”

Millard has experienced growth in the number of students taking AP foreign language classes, but the number of exams that account for French and German are at a low 1.5 percent of all tests administered.

Thirty eight total students were enrolled in AP French in the 2017-2018 school year. Forty five were taking AP German. One hundred and fifty eight chose AP Spanish. The choice to eliminate French and German from middle schools may have seemed like an obvious, yet difficult one.

“I could understand people’s concern, but I think they have to see all the positives to [the new schedule] as well,” Tiemann said. “I don’t think Dr. Sutfin ran away from this as a great victory. Resources can only go so far and we’re going to provide the best educational system with the resources we have.”

Despite being unsuccessful in preserving language diversity in middle schools, protestors were able to obtain an amendment to the plan. This will allow an exploratory course option in French and German for eighth graders to promote the potential transfer to a new language in high school.

Because of the activism and determination that concerned community members demonstrated, a slight concession was made in their favor — a small, but worthwhile victory moving Millard middle schools closer to a genuinely worldwide scope.