See recent NY Times article

Maxine Hicks for The New York Times JUST SAY OUI Brooke Prestano, who teaches French at the William T. Rogers Middle School in Kings Park, says she worries that the consolidation of French courses at the school could be the beginning of the end

April 5, 2009 The Island | Robert Finn

A Teacher Fears C’est Fini for French Class By ROBIN FINN KINGS PARK BROOKE PRESTANO — or Mrs. Prestano, as she’s known around the linoleum hallways at the William T. Rogers Middle School, where she has taught French to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders for five years — is a serious Francophile. The day in 1999 that her student visa expired and she had to return to Northport, and reality, after spending a year in the French Alps as a Rotary Club exchange student, she cried. Then she mobilized in what seemed a pragmatic, even altruistic fashion: She would share her passion by becoming a teacher of the language and, by default, the culture. She regrouped, graduating from SUNY Stony Brook with a dual certification authorizing her to instruct youngsters in French as well as Italian (good to have a backup, especially in a heavily Italian-American district like Kings Park, where “heritage speakers” are all the vogue). But Mrs. Prestano, 28 and mightily effervescent behind the spider-webby frames of her très chic Lafont glasses, envisioned herself a French teacher, so that’s what she became. That French was the least popular of Kings Park’s three language electives — Spanish and Italian are the others, and all students must select one — seemed immaterial. And a challenge. “When my students would ask whether or not they have cellphones yet in France, I just loved being able to say to them, ‘They were texting in France before we even knew what it was,’ ” she said. “You want to do techno-stuff, then it’s important to speak French.” It’s one of the official languages, she said, of the United Nations and the Olympics. Further ammunition for its relevance: According to Sarah Jourdain, director of Foreign Language Pedagogy at Stony Brook, French is the only language, besides English, spoken on five continents and the language spoken, along with English, in Canada, the No. 1 trade partner of the United States. “No way is French a lame-duck language that’s no longer viable in the 21st century,” Mrs. Prestano said. That’s why it was a no-brainer that she freaked out, to put it bluntly, two weeks ago after being summoned to the principal’s office for a meeting with the district’s administration. She had no reason to think she was about to be driven to tears again, 10 years after her epiphanic Alps experience, by her attachment to all things French. “I had no clue what they wanted to tell me; I thought it was going to be a question about a field trip,” she said Tuesday afternoon in her classroom, where the on-topic décor includes a generic warning sign with the drawing of a fierce-looking German shepherd and the words: Prenez Garde au Chien. An attention-getter in any language. Instead of making field trip chitchat with the middle school administrators, she received what she interpreted as some extraordinarily bad news from Susan Agruso, the district’s relatively new (she has been on the job seven months) superintendent of schools. Because of declining enrollment and budgetary constraints, Mrs. Prestano was informed, the French program would be reconfigured in a manner that ceased to offer the language to students at the sixth-grade level; in addition, the two top-level high school French courses would be combined into one. Although Ms. Agruso painted the changes as a necessary “consolidation” rather than the first steps of a phaseout, Mrs. Prestano took the message more apocalyptically. “It killed me,” she said. The program at the middle school was languishing when Mrs. Prestano arrived; she said she has incrementally boosted its enrollment by 75 percent, from next to nothing to around 100 students, from classes of 11 to classes of 23. Her students, who do their learning in a windowless classroom where the clock is embedded in a model of the Eiffel Tower, have been consistent performers in French language and poetry competitions on Long Island and on exams like the National French Contest. (“Call it Le Grand Concours; it sounds better.”) “I’m not about to call myself an award-winning educator, but this is an award-winning program,” she said. “What we lack in size, we make up for in passion.” The Gallic way. For firsthand evidence of their passion, visit the student-organized Web site ( that, paranoid or not, has mustered an energetic outcry against the demolition or diminution of the program. The site has received some 10,000 hits, among them one from Fabrice Jaumont, the education attaché to the French Embassy in Manhattan. Guess where his sentiments lie. Ms. Agruso, who admits to retaining enough high school French to wend her way through a sophisticated menu, said there is no conspiracy afoot: “There is no plan in place to eliminate the French program as we know it.” She did not, however, promise not to implement such a plan should enrollment decline. “It’s not the hot language. For me, it’s a little like the typewriter — it’s been replaced by the computer.” Enrollment in Italian “is bursting at the seams,” she said, and she would “love” to start a course in Chinese; a trial seminar in Arabic is being offered at the high school level. “We aren’t discontinuing French at this time, and every student already in the pipeline will be allowed to go all the way through, but will French, Italian and Spanish still be our three electives 10 years down the road? I don’t know.” Next thing you know, they’ll be serving Freedom fries in the cafeteria. Quel dommage. Zut alors. C’est la vie. What a pity. Oh heck. That’s life. It sounds so much better, even worldlier, in French, n’est-ce pas, Ms. Agruso? E-mail:

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