LEWISTON — The School Committee has agreed to add Chinese language classes at the high school because no replacement could be found for one of two French teachers.

The school also will offer Arabic for the first time. That program is paid for through a grant.

This means the high school will offer five foreign language programs: Spanish, French, Latin, Arabic and Chinese.

Superintendent Bill Webster called the lineup outstanding, one that reflects local heritage and the world at large.

The School Committee voted 6-3 Monday night to offer Chinese language classes.

High School Principal Shawn Chabot said he advertised for a French teacher in May and June but received no response. He then reached out to retired French teachers.

“They weren’t interested,” Chabot said.

He asked the French substitute teacher to teach, but she wasn’t available. He also checked with The Dolard and Priscilla Gendron Franco Center, and that didn’t yield any candidates, either, he said.

However, a teacher who was born in Maine, lived in China and is certified to teach Chinese did apply. Rather than losing a foreign language teaching position, administrators recommended that she be hired.

“In talking to other superintendents, world language teachers who are certified are really hard to get,” Webster said. “To have the world’s most dominant language show up at our door” is a gift, he said. “This is very exciting.”

But School Committee member Francis Gagnon, who with Richard White and Megan Parks voted against the hiring, said more effort should be taken to promote French in a Franco community.

Gagnon said he’s not against teaching Chinese, but that once the language teacher’s position is filled, the high school loses a second French teacher. There’s no room in the budget for a second French teacher, if one were found, Gagnon said.

Lewiston has a large Franco-American population, he said, and having one less French teacher would weaken the culture in the community.

“I don’t want to lose our French culture,” he said.

He suggested administrators didn’t try hard enough to find a second French teacher.

“We’re three hours from Canada,” he said. “We jumped the gun.”

Other committee members, several of whom are Franco-Americans, disagreed.

“I’m French,” Chairwoman Linda Scott said. “I grew up speaking French. I had to go to school to learn English. My family all speaks French. I’m 100 percent for keeping our culture.” And, agreeing with Gagnon, she said some of Lewiston’s new African immigrants speak French.

“That being said, I like the opportunity that we have other things available for our students,” she said. “We need to give the opportunity for other students who may want to take Chinese, one of the largest languages in the world.”

While teaching Chinese was approved for this year, committee members agreed they would review interest in Chinese and French in the coming months; they could change their minds — and programs — in the spring.

Students and parents will be surveyed during upcoming budget sessions about which foreign languages they want to be taught at the school, Webster said. If more people want French, adding another French teacher will be considered, officials said.

Last year, the most popular foreign language was Spanish: 191 students took Spanish I or II, as compared to the 107 students who took French I or II, Chabot said.

Early feedback from his recent announcement of offering Chinese pending board approval “is positive,” he said. But enrollment numbers won’t be available for a few weeks.

How much student interest there is in Chinese will be known in three weeks, Scott said.

“If we find out that only five kids (enroll), then we’re not going to do this,” she said. “We’ll still be looking for a French teacher. If we find a good, qualified French teacher, we will be having this discussion again.”

Officials stressed Monday that students who enrolled in French will be accommodated, but French classes will be larger. Class sizes will be in the low 20s instead of 15 to 20 students.

The exception, however, will be some freshmen. On Tuesday, Chabot said he learned that 10 freshmen had asked to take French, but they will not get into traditional classes. They will be offered online courses, or will be first on the list next year, he said.

The same thing happened for freshmen wanting to take Spanish, as those classes are full.

Every year, some freshmen don’t get into foreign language classes and have to wait until they’re sophomores, Chabot said.

Jacynthe Blais Jacques, the cultural and language programs director at the Franco Center, said Tuesday she worked with the Lewiston School Department to find a French teacher.

There is a widespread shortage, she said, adding that the standards are high to become certified to teach French.

Chinese is among the most widely spoken languages in the world, Jacques said, but she wasn’t sure of the need for it locally. Teaching French is important to keep the culture growing, she said.

Lewiston School Department new hires discussed Monday:

Yahya Ismael will teach Arabic at the high school. The position is being paid for by a grant, so is not taking away from any other foreign language program. Ismael is an exchange teacher from Egypt. Arabic is one of the languages spoken by many of the city’s students from immigrant families. Fifty students have signed up to study Arabic. 

Meghan Lewis will teach Chinese at the high school. She grew up in Maine, graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington and taught English in China. She fell in love with the language and got a master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language. She interned for the University of Southern Maine’s Confucius Institute in Portland.

Kelsey Nadeau will be the special education supervisor at Geiger Elementary School. She has worked for three years as lead teacher with special education students and teachers in Woodsfield Family Services, has interned at Healthy Androscoggin in Lewiston, has a master’s degree in special education and education psychology.


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