Anne Ogden recalls two instances that proved to her she didn’t have enough education in foreign languages.
She once worked as an intern at the United Nations, where she said a popular joke was:
“What do you call a person who only speaks one language?”
“The answer was ‘An American,’” Ogden said.
She also vividly remembers an interaction with a homeless man when she visited Germany several years ago.
“I told him I didn’t speak German, so he stopped and instantly started asking me for something in English,” Ogden said. “That told me a lot — that a homeless man knew more of a foreign language than I did.”
Now, as mother of two young girls, Ogden is determined to make sure her children don’t miss the chance to learn a foreign language at an early age. She requested time at the St. Tammany Parish School Board meeting on Feb. 8 and gave a five-minute presentation on how she’d like to see local public schools adopt a French immersion program at one or more elementary schools.
Ogden says she’s not trying to lead a movement, but rather is a parent concerned that her daughters (Madeline, 4, and Mathilde, 2) receive the best education they can.
She said she has statistics to support that learning a second (or third or fourth) language is much easier in elementary school. Also, there are numerous indicators that learning additional languages when young leads to better testing scores and other similar educational advantages.
Many language immersion programs begin with students in prekindergarten through first grade. Sixty percent or more of the daily curriculum is taught in another language. The idea is that people learn a new language more quickly when they are surrounded by it almost exclusively, rather than vacillating between languages. English/language arts are not taught in a foreign language in standard immersion programs.
“I had one hour a day of a foreign language going all the way back to kindergarten myself,” Ogden said of her formative years spent in New Orleans area schools. "But it wasn’t enough for me.”
When Ogden and her husband moved to Covington in the summer of 2016, they were surprised to learn St. Tammany public elementary schools didn’t offer immersion programs, even though there are 32 such programs in 13 Louisiana parishes. Soon thereafter, she began conversations with Regina Sanford, assistant superintendent of curriculum, about Ogden’s idea of starting a French immersion program in St. Tammany.
The school where 4-year-old Madeline Ogden soon will start kindergarten does not offer foreign language of any kind, her mother said.
After the School Board meeting on Feb. 8, Sanford said much work must be done logistically before a language immersion program could be considered. Besides determining at which school or schools classes would be taught, there’s also the issue of staffing.
Foreign language is one of the hardest teaching positions to fill, Sanford said, and the St. Tammany School System currently has openings for two full-time French teachers on the high school level. There also are about 1,000 Spanish-speaking students in the public school system, and finding English as Second Language teachers for that population is another area the system needs to consider.
Still, Sanford noted that Ogden presented the names of 36 kindergarten students and 27 first-grade students whose parents are interested in a French immersion program. That’s certainly enough for Sanford and her staff to put effort into the cause. They plan to reach out to the parents to determine their dedication to such a program and will reassess when that work is complete.
Ogden already had recruited a committee of parents at least 20 members strong who began gathering information on how an immersion program could work locally. They found that the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) works with the state Department of Education to help start and maintain the programs.
The parental committee started a Facebook page (St. Tammany French Immersion Schools) and reached out to the parish’s elementary school principals, who Ogden said promised to support the program should the School Board approve the idea. The French Consulate in New Orleans would likely help, as it has with programs in other areas of the state, as well, she said.
“There are resources available to do this,” Ogden said. “And it’s not limiting. There are immersion programs in Spanish and Mandarin in New Orleans, and maybe you’d have that one day in St. Tammany, too. But it seemed logical to start with French given our history and the resources available.”
Ogden doesn't think a separate school would need to be built for the program. Instead, participating schools would start out with young elementary students in the immersion classes, and they would expand to include those students as they aged.
“My hope and goal is that there is a place for everyone who wants to be involved in this,” Ogden said. “We live in this world economy environment. Since (Hurricane) Katrina, New Orleans has been a hotbed for startup (companies) in the changing economy. For those reasons alone, knowing another language is important.”