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A presentation of flags by French immersion students is held as part of opening ceremonies as Festival International de Louisiane officially begins in downtown Lafayette on Thursday, April 25, 2019.

Schools in five Acadiana parishes may be short immersion teachers come August now that a federal change to a temporary visa program is preventing more than 70 foreign language teachers from entering the country.

The teachers, recruited to work in 15 parishes, were barred entry to the United States after President Donald Trump issued a proclamation June 22 suspending new entrants on temporary visa programs, including the J-1 visa the teachers were operating under, in an effort to curb American job losses caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The order lasts through the end of the year.

The teachers include French and Spanish immersion teachers, as well as a limited number of educators bound for traditional foreign language programs. The group includes roughly 48 French educators and 23 Spanish teachers, according to the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL). The numbers are in flux as some teachers step down from the program due to the pandemic.

In Acadiana, schools would lose about 16 teachers: six in Evangeline Parish, four in St. Martin Parish, three in Iberia Parish, two in Lafayette Parish and one in Vermilion Parish, according to numbers provided by the Louisiana Department of Education.

Advocates for French immersion programs are raising the alarm that loss of the teachers could, at best, set children back in their language skills development and at worst endanger the health of immersion programs around the state, including some that are still in their early years. The supporters are pushing for an exemption to the president’s order.

Michael Lombas, assistant superintendent of Evangeline Parish Schools, said the loss of new teachers would “devastate” the immersion program at Mamou Elementary, which lost all its existing teachers at the end of the school year when their visas expired. Five of the parish’s six scheduled teachers were intended to cover kindergarten through fourth grade immersion at Mamou, he said.

“Without them coming my program is devastated. You can’t get a bigger impact than that,” Lombas said.

Evangeline Parish launched French immersion programs at Mamou Elementary and Ville Platte Elementary in 2017, Superintendent Darwan Lazard said. The programs have been warmly embraced by parish residents, who boast the largest French-speaking population in the state, he said.

The programs are an important academic addition to the parish’s offerings and help boost student achievement, he said, citing studies that suggest bilingual students outperform monolingual peers.

Lazard partnered with U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Benton, to have a letter advocating exemptions for the immersion teachers delivered to the president. The superintendent said he’s optimistic they can reach a resolution sooner than later and “get a favorable result” to ensure the best academic situation for all students come August.

Francophone multimedia company Télé-Louisiane started a petition urging state and federal lawmakers to work with the president to save the teaching positions. The petition had more than 4,700 signatures as of Thursday morning.

Télé-Louisiane CEO Will McGrew said his team saw an opportunity to leverage the infrastructure they’ve built in the Louisiana Francophone community to spread the word about French immersion’s potential setback. It’s important to illustrate the public’s support for immersion language programs, he said.

French immersion is a driver for the preservation of French in Louisiana, not only as a cultural touchstone and piece of living heritage but as an economic engine and opportunity generator in the state, he said. Louisiana’s French-speaking reputation drives tourism and can help attract businesses looking to relocate or establish offices in areas with French presence, McGrew said.

Louisiana was inducted into the International Organization of La Francophonie, a group of French-speaking countries, as an observer member in 2018. Honoring commitments is crucial to maintaining a healthy relationship with these countries, he said.

“Our situation is very unique. This is not a situation where any American jobs are at risk. This is a situation where we couldn’t find Americans to fill these positions and that’s why we had to recruit from our international partners,” McGrew said.

CODOFIL spokesman Matt Mick said immersion teachers are primarily recruited from France, Belgium and Canada because developing homegrown talent has been a slow process.

In the past 10 years, CODOFIL has invested in a pipeline program, Escadrille Louisiane, to train Louisianians as French immersion educators and place them in public schools or public charters. Escadrille Louisiane is a two-year graduate program that requires students to earn a master’s in education, spend time teaching abroad and become French-fluency certified, he said.

There are about 30 active teachers from the program, but with roughly 175 teachers working in immersion programs or other French programs annually statewide and 5,000 students in need, Escadrille Louisiane can’t keep up with demand yet, the CODOFIL spokesman said.

“We don’t have the numbers to support the interest in immersion education to feel comfortable putting teachers who are qualified both linguistically and pedagogically to work in an immersion environment,” Mick said.

CODOFIL estimates the loss of the new foreign educator cohort would impact about 2,000 students. Continuity of instruction is critical because strong language skills require frequent use and steady progression to retain ability, he said.

Mick said a federal exemption is crucial because it’s unlikely a midyear solution would be feasible. CODOFIL serves as the teachers’ visa sponsors and is involved with their contract negotiations. The contract terms for the recruited teachers are very specific. If they don’t accept the Louisiana positions on schedule, they’ll likely be placed in teaching positions in their home countries or have to seek out other opportunities.

In Evangeline Parish, Lombas said he’s hopeful if the foreign teachers can’t be physically present, some might be able to teach virtually.

The administrator recognizes that might be a long shot for some educators; one couple with young children slated to teach in Evangeline already gave up their apartment in Paris and their jobs in preparation to come to the United States and now are in a difficult position as the jobs in Evangeline Parish lag. If too much time passes, they’ll need to move on with their lives, he said.

Lombas said he and the Evangeline Parish schools team are working feverishly on a backup plan, turning to French speaking school volunteers, retired French teachers and others who may be able to keep the program afloat in case full-time immersion teachers are unavailable this school year.

“I’m not giving up on our French immersion program and I’m going to do whatever I can to keep it going,” the assistant superintendent said.

State Education Superintendent Cade Brumley said his office has advocated with Louisiana’s Congressional delegation and the U.S. Department of Education to stress the importance of the programs. Parents are facing existing instability with schooling and employment caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic and don’t need another worry added to the list, he said.

While delivery of education will look different for all students come August, students shouldn’t have the central function of their educational model stripped away just over a month before school starts, the superintendent said.

“Families have selected this model of education for their children and those families had every reason to believe this model would be able to continue. This policy decision, which probably was not made in terms of educational facilities, certainly has a clear and direct impact on many of our families in Louisiana,” Brumley said.


Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com