Can you learn German or Spanish from a computer as well as you can from a live teacher? Most experts say no. But….school districts are under increasing pressure to cut budgets, and foreign language teachers become a target. 

Here’s a transcript of Colorado Public Radio’s education reporter Jenny Brundin’s report.

Bujnowski: …reflechir avec le passé compose aujourd’hui. What did I just say?

Students: (all say answer at once)

Reporter Jenny Brundin: Today, Nancy Bujnowski is leading her French 2 class in a dry-but-necessary lesson in reflexive verbs.

Bujnowski: Nous allons. Is that conjugated?

Students: Yes.

Reporter: She’s been teaching French, German and Chinese in this Eagle Valley High School classroom for 21 years. Every square inch of the room is covered in posters and maps from around the world.

Nancy Bujnowski: It opens the kids’ eyes to different parts of the world. Especially the kids who’ve never left the valley. They don’t know what the rest of the world is like.

(ambience)

Reporter: Bujnowski  is a favorite among students because of her dry sense of humor. She’s known as:

Student: The Buj.

Reporter : The Buj.

Student:  Or the Bujinator.

Reporter : The Bujinator.This student says, the Bujinator rules with an iron fist. She can be tough:

Bujnowski: And this means that?!?

Reporter: Still, the kids love her. But Bujnowski is one of three foreign language teachers in the mountainous Eagle Valley district who are losing their jobs. This year, the district had to slash $5.5 million, about 10 percent of the total budget. Bujnowski’s last day was Wednesday. She’ll be replaced with a computer-based program called Aventa. It will give weekly updates on students’ progress to principals like Phillip Qualman of Battle Mountain High School in Eagle. With 500 students studying Spanish or Mandarin and only 30 in French or German, he’s cutting a language teacher too.

 

Phillip Qualman: I have to look at where I have high student enrollment, high student interest and put my staffing in those areas. We can’t justify a full-time teacher with a class of eight students.

 

Reporter: There are about 1500 foreign language teachers in Colorado, a fraction of the more than 47,000 public school teachers. According to data examined by Colorado Public Radio News, their numbers overall  are holding steady, even bumping up slightly from a decade ago. But as demand for Mandarin Chinese and Spanish surges, when French and German teachers retire, they’re often not replaced. Kate Blanas is a past president of the Colorado Congress of Foreign Language Teachers. 

 

Kate Blanas: It’s sad to see things lost and gone. Languages come and go. Russian was very popular for a while and so was Japanese, and I can’t believe that German and French are maybe following that path, but it’s always a struggle to keep up enrollment for French and German.

 

Reporter: Battle Mountain High didn’t want to drop French and German completely. So they decided on the Aventa computer program. Eight students are using it now. It’s flexible – students can learn when they want. But school officials are finding that it only really works for students who are motivated and good time managers.

Qualman: But the ones who, you give them a little bit of slack other than their Aventa work, then they’re struggling a little bit.

Reporter: Students in one rural county - Cheyenne, on the eastern plains- did more than struggle. The principal there said their experiment with on-line language learning was an “absolute disaster.” Now, the district is joining with other rural districts to pay for V-net, a live video stream with a Spanish teacher based in Arkansas. Meantime,  the Centennial school district in San Luis experimented with Rosetta Stone Spanish this year. It’s giving it up and going back to a live teacher. Administrators found students were missing out on learning about a culture and practicing real conversations.

[sound of Rosetta Chinese]

Reporter: Eagle Valley senior Brandi Seng knows what they’re talking about. She’s taking Chinese through Rosetta Stone.

Brandi Seng: It’s frustrating at best because the program doesn’t always recognize your voice.

Reporter: And when it doesn’t recognize your voice?

[sound of Seng speaking Chinese]

Seng: You have to do it over until it recognizes your voice even if you say it the same way 20 times.

Reporter: Eagle Valley school district’s human resource director Brian Childress is well aware of the downsides of computer-based language learning. But the district doesn’t have many options. Students may be upset about losing teachers like Nancy Bujnowski, but Childress notes that last November, voters had the chance to prevent the cuts.

Brian Childress: These cuts are a direct are a direct result and the cuts to foreign language, the cuts to P.E. and arts, the changes in classroom size are all the result of not having passed a local mill levy election.

(sound of classroom)

Matt Genelin: Quesque tu fais après l’ecole?

Tanny Sandoval : Je promenade a pieds.

Reporter: Tanny Sandoval and Matt Genelin are in Bujnowski’s French 1 class. Matt will have to take Aventa French next year.

Matt Genelin: The colleges I really want to get into require two or three years of a consecutive foreign language. I know I could do it by switching to Spanish but French just kind of makes me happier. 

Reporter: He’s not happy at all about taking it on-line. He says he’ll miss the face to face interaction. (sound of singing) And he’ll miss something no computer program can replicate –a roomful of teenagers – led by their stalwart French teacher, The Buj – singing, the French national anthem.

(singing)