FORT GEORGE — Parents worried about cuts to school foreign-language programs were told by education chief Carmen Fariña that, if they don't like it, they should buy the pricey audio course Rosetta Stone.
The schools chancellor slapped down concerns about the loss of language classes at a recent town hall meeting to discuss the effectiveness of dual-language programs and second-language learning in Uptown's District 6.
When the mother of a seventh-grade student at the Mott Hall School told Fariña that her son had his French courses cut from twice to once a week amid a growing emphasis on STEM education — short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — Fariña gave an answer that drew gasps from the room.
"I’m going to give you my grandmother advice to this one. I have a 9-year-old grandson that loves language and I bought him Rosetta Stone for the holiday," she told the mom at the Dec. 15 meeting. The educational software, which retails for $200, is "a really good program," she added.
"That’s something I strongly recommend. It’s very exciting."
“First and foremost, be happy you have an embarrassment [of] riches," Fariña added, to the shock of many in the 1,200-person crowd that had gathered in the George Washington Educational Campus.
Fariña also noted that Rosetta Stone can be "integrated" into after-school programs.
"All you need is the use of a computer room and laptops," she said.
Parents said they were blown away by the comment, given that 27 percent of the population in Washington Heights and Inwood lives below the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census.
"Rosetta Stone is expensive," Kari Steeves, a local parent and former member of the Community Education Council for District 6, said after the meeting.
“If she really means what she says about the importance of being bi- or multilingual, her policies should reflect that for all children, whether or not they're in a dual-language school.”
Fariña has been a strong proponent of dual-language programs. This past year, the city created 40 new ones and expanded dual-language programs at schools across the five boroughs, bringing the total number to 154 and making it the single most requested program for parents.
Of those dual-language programs, 21 are in District 6 alone, including at Inwood's Amistad and Washington Heights' Dos Puentes schools, according to district superintendent of elementary and middle schools Manuel Ramirez.
The Mott Hall School parent was speaking about stand-alone foreign-language classes rather than dual-language programs, in which two languages are built into the curriculum.
Judith de los Santos, principal for the Mott Hall School, said the cuts to foreign-language programs were necessary because the school was already exceeding the number of years that it had to be taught.
Schools must provide one year of foreign-language instruction, which Mott Hall offers in eighth grade, she said. But students were also being taught in seventh grade.
The Department of Education did not respond to questions about Fariña's Rosetta Stone remark.
"The DOE has prioritized opening and expanding dual language programs and is committed to ensuring that all students have access to a great education regardless of their native language or zip code they live in," spokeswoman Yuridia Peña said in a statement.
Fariña — who also highlighted her family’s travels to Spain and Miami and told how she emphasizes learning a second language to her grandchildren — said parents need to take the lead in how their children learn about different languages and cultures, and not just leave it to teachers.
“I think this is something parents have to get,” Fariña said, “People with two languages actually have more assets than anyone else.”
Fe Florimon, CEC president and chairwoman of the youth and education committee for Community Board 12, said the council has shared with the chancellor the district's concern about bilingual programs on several occasions.
"This is the population that has a great problem with the [English] language," Florimon said.
Although this was Fariña's second town hall in the district, she has come Uptown several times since her appointment in 2013 and meets regularly with principals, attends events and stays in constant communication with District 6's superintendents, Florimon said.
For her part, Fariña said the dual-language programs have proven effective, and she's hoping that next year the number of schools carrying them will double.