ERATH — Barren white walls and stacked school desks surrounded Martine Colin in an Erath High School classroom, where the woman students and faculty called “Madame” taught French for the last seven years.
“The students love French. It’s the language of their community, and they relate,” Colin said, smiling as she retold memories of her teaching methods — extra points for students who bring in French words they learned from the community, the annual assignment to speak or sing in French for two minutes and in front of the class, the hours she spent outside the classroom supporting her students in their extracurricular endeavors.
“It makes a big difference if you have a live teacher to prepare you,” said Colin, a native of France who grew up in Belgium and has taught in Louisiana since 1984.
Next year, Colin’s role will be filled by a computer.
One language teacher will remain in Vermilion Parish next year, at North Vermilion High School, as the school system shifts toward virtual learning for its language and elective courses.
Like the rest of Acadiana, the Vermilion Parish school system is struggling with budget deficits as the oil slump continues to cause declines in sales-tax collections that help fund public schools. School administrators are faced with the hard choices of reducing expenses.
Superintendent Jerome Puyau said it’s up to each school’s principal to determine how to best use their resources as the district faces a projected $3.2 million deficit.
“We had to trim some positions,” Puyau said.
Although no teachers lost their jobs — Colin’s position was eliminated, making her “displaced,” but she was offered a job as an elementary music teacher — class sizes throughout the district will be larger next year.
Online classes — a program that students lead themselves through — provide an alternative route for expanding, instead of reducing, curriculum offerings as the district grapples with budget woes, said Ellen Arceneaux, assistant superintendent of curriculum.
They will also offer more flexibility for students, who can take extra classes and accelerate their time in high school or complete the courses over the summer if they need to catch up.
Virtual learning offers cost-saving measures, Arceneaux said, while acknowledging that online courses are no substitute for having a teacher in the classroom.
“It’s good, but having a face-to-face teacher is also good,” Arceneaux said.
The parish’s near-elimination of teacher-led language courses in “the most Cajun place on Earth,” as the Vermilion Parish Tourist Commission bills its home, is in contrast to state efforts to preserve the French language throughout Louisiana, especially in the Acadiana region — where the French language is declining in prevalence.
About 72 percent of the parish’s population spoke English in 2000, and the number increased to about 77 percent a decade later, according to data compiled by the Modern Language Association. But while 23 percent of the parish’s population spoke French in 2000, only about 18 percent did in 2010.
Bill Arceneaux, president of the state-funded Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, said the organization has pushed for the development of French immersion programs throughout Louisiana in an effort to preserve the culture while providing a better quality of education.
Arceneaux said schools that invest in immersion programs will produce higher-performing students.
“Bottom line is they do so much better than their counterparts in any school by any measure,” he said. “It’s good for the students, it’s good for the state and it’s good for us who want to preserve the French language in Louisiana.”
But the support is not always there. Vermilion Parish School Board President Anthony Fontana said he’s long advocated for offering more Spanish instruction in the district as more Spanish speakers move into the parish.
The percentage of people speaking Spanish in Vermilion Parish — now its third most prevalent language — increased from 1 to 2 percent from 2000-2010 and knocked Vietnamese to the fourth-place spot, according to the Modern Language Association.
“It makes a lot more sense to me,” Fontana said.
Colin, the displaced French teacher, thinks it’s important to keep students immersed in the region’s cultural identity and to instill a greater focus on language learning, especially in French, noting that students outside the U.S. often learn multiple languages before entering college.
“It’s about connecting Erath to the rest of the world,” she said.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.