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Foreign language instruction at 46 elementary schools has been targeted as a possible budget cut by the county school system to help make up a projected $140 million budget deficit.

Sandy Knox has been through this before. In November 2009, a budget shortfall also put the Foreign Language in the Elementary Schools program at risk, but the work of passionate parents such as Knox ensured that its funding remained intact.

“It’s an exhausting effort,” Knox said. “And it’s a shame that this has to come up so regularly.”

Superintendent Karen Garza and the county School Board last week held the first of many discussions on next year’s budget, and eliminating FLES was just one of many possible cost-saving measures being evaluated. Garza estimated that more than $100 million in cuts would be needed.

Cutting the foreign language program would result in an estimated $5.5. million in savings, but also would impact students in one-third of the county’s elementary schools. Through FLES, students receive two to three 30-minute periods of language instruction per week. Of the 46 schools, 30 provide instruction in Spanish; the others teach either Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Italian or French. Six schools’ programs just started this year.

For Knox, advocating for this program is about more than just the importance of foreign language instruction, though she does believe that it benefits students.

“We really want to advocate for money for the schools,” Knox said. “Yes, we want to keep our programs, but it all comes down to getting money for the schools.”

Knox co-founded the group Fairfax FLAGS — Foreign Language Advocacy for Grade Schools — when FLES last was threatened by budget cuts in 2009. She had just fought to bring the program to Brookfield, her children’s school, the previous year, and she did not want to see it disappear.

She organized a group of FLES parents and banded together with parents whose children participated in the county’s foreign language immersion programs, which then also were at risk. At its height, the Fairfax FLAGS online mailing list reached 3,000 parents, and the group helped save both programs from the chopping block.

“We feel like these things are what make Fairfax County schools unique and better than other school districts,” Knox said.

However, in the years since then, as FLES has remained safe and even expanded, Fairfax FLAGS dropped off. It still has an active Facebook group, but its website went offline and many parents moved on to other issues.

Now, with news of the budget deficit possibly endangering the program, parents have started contacting Knox and Fairfax FLAGS again, and the organization is working to get its website and numbers back up.

School Board member Ryan McElveen (At-large) wants parents to know that despite the cost-crunching situation it faces, the board still is dedicated to foreign language learning. The board has formed a working group focused on internationalization efforts in schools, and one of its main priorities is to investigate how FLES could be restructured and improved.

“Parents need to know, we still do view it as an important part of our curriculum,” said Ryan McElveen, School Board member (At-large). “In some counties in the country, that program would be the first thing to go. But I don’t think that’s who we are in Fairfax County.”

Still, the threat to the program remains, and Knox worries that Fairfax FLAGS will not be able to muster as much energy as it once did.

“It’s really an exhausting effort,” she said. “I think parents just get tired of having to fight this battle.”

With her youngest child now in sixth grade and moving out of the elementary school program, she has started looking for FLES parents to take her place as a leader in advocating for the program.

“I’ve done this for six years, and I don’t have the energy for it anymore,” Knox said. “It’s not that I don’t care, but we need to have new faces and new energy.”

kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com