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MAR 27, 2018 – 1:45 PM

Woman sues to start French immersion program in St. Tammany schools

A Covington woman has sued the St. Tammany Parish School Board, saying it failed to provide French immersion classes after she met all necessary requirements for the school system to begin the program.

Anne Ogden is the petitioner in the suit individually and on behalf of her 4-year-old daughter. It was filed by attorney Charles Branton in 22nd Judicial District Court on March 22 and assigned to Judge Ray Childress.

The suit says that Ogden gathered the signatures of parents of 36 rising kindergarten students and 27 rising first-grade students, all of whom were interested in having a French immersion program started in the St. Tammany school system. The initial classes would be geared to the youngest students, and ideally additional grades would be added each year.

Ogden moved to Covington in 2016 and was surprised to learn there is no language immersion programming in St. Tammany public schools. Wanting her daughter to have access to immersion classes, she presented all of the signatures to the School Board at its Feb. 8 meeting.

The suit also says Ogden met all other obligations required by state law to have the School Board start the program, which — in addition to parental commitments for at least 25 students in both kindergarten and first grade — included providing assurance of funding and availability of French language teachers for the program.

Ogden’s suit says she presented all that and more at the board’s Feb. 8 meeting, including a letter from the Louisiana Department of Education stating that funding was in place and a letter from the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana that indicated instructors were available to teach the classes in St. Tammany.

The Immersion School Choice Law was passed by the Legislature in 2014 to facilitate expansion of foreign language immersion programs statewide.

But instead of having the school system take the lead on starting the classes, the suit contends, Ogden was saddled with having to distribute a waiver form to the parents that Branton said was “intimidating” and a “roadblock” to getting immersion programming in place.

On the form, parents are told they “waive any rights whatsoever” for their child to attend any other school in St. Tammany except the one where the school system would decide to hold the French immersion classes.

Since the system had yet to select that school, Branton said that waiver scared parents into believing they might have to bring their children to a school in a distant part of the parish. They also had no indication what time the school day would start, which made transportation — not provided by the school system — an additional deterrent, Branton said.

According to the suit, more than 85 percent of the petitioning parents reside in the Covington, Madisonville and Mandeville areas.

The suit also says Ogden received the waiver form on Feb. 20, which allowed her very little time to distribute a form Branton contends was not permissible by law in the first place. Because of that, he’s asked the court for a declaratory judgment and an expedited hearing.

“(The school system) told her that she was solely charged with distributing the form and ensuring its execution and return to the School Board by March 1,” the suit says. “They did not provide copies of the form at local schools or announce the forms’ availability on their website.”

The waiver form also said that if more than 25 students wanted to enter the kindergarten or first grade immersion classes, a lottery system would be used to fill the 25 spaces in each.

Branton said there’s no provision in the Immersion School Choice Law for a lottery system.

“It’s just another one of the roadblocks the school system threw up to make sure this didn’t happen,” he said.

Branton said the goal still is to have the French immersion program available to local kindergartners and first-graders in the 2018-19 school year.

He said he’s willing to sit down with school system leaders to see if an agreement is possible outside of court. It’s important to move quickly, he said, because the law allows immersion programs to include an unlimited number of kindergarten and first-grade students who meet certain conditions; however, children in second grade or older must pass tests to continue in the program.

Meredith Mendez, a spokesperson for the St. Tammany school system, said she couldn’t comment on the pending litigation.

In an earlier interview, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Regina Sanford said there is a shortage of foreign language teachers in the system and an influx into parish schools of approximately 1,000 Spanish-speaking students also had to be considered when contemplating additional foreign language programs.

Sanford said no student would be required to permanently waive the right to attend another school by joining the French immersion program. She also said that if a parent decided the program is not right for their child, they could drop out of it and return to a regular school.

If an immersion class falls below the required number of participants, however, that could affect the system’s ability to host the program, she said.

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