CLIFTON—A requirement that all schoolchildren learn Spanish narrowly
survived a challenge Wednesday night when a bare majority of the school
board rejected a counterproposal that Latin be taught instead.
The move toward Latin was raised by trustee Norman Tahan and
seconded by Lizz Gagnon, both running for reelection in the April 20
school board race.
Tahan has vehemently opposed teaching Spanish because, he said, he
believes it will foster a dual-language society by discouraging the
growing Latino population from learning English.
Clifton, although predominantly white, is sandwiched between the
largely Latino cities of Passaic and Paterson. Clifton’s Latino
population is growing; in the school system, it is nearly 30 percent of
It is that very growth that prompted the district to meet a state
foreign-language mandate by teaching Spanish for 30 minutes per week to
youngsters at one elementary school. The pilot program is expected to
spread to five or six more elementary schools next school year.
Sixth-graders will study two foreign languages, Spanish for half
the year, and probably French for the remainder.
Tahan says he opposes teaching any foreign language, but is
particularly upset the district selected Spanish. He has been accused of
racism, but he insisted he is only trying to help Latinos advance by
ensuring they learn English. Teaching Spanish to all students undermines
that goal, he said. He said students who lack English proficiency should
be schooled separately and be required to learn English by studying
“I believe language binds a country, and this Board of Education
should not be kowtowing to what has been the white man’s way of
keeping Hispanics in their place,”Tahan said, adding that Latin would
be more educationally palatable. Joining him in opposition were Gagnon,
Steve Kolakowski, and Joseph Wenzel.
The five board members who rejected Tahan’s proposal simply said
Spanish was the most expedient and cost-effective choice because it
would be easier to find teachers with expertise in the language.
Superintendent William Liess says Spanish makes the most sense: It
is the most popular foreign language elective at the high school, and
youngsters would have a real-life opportunity to practice it with their
He spoke briefly during the meeting, disputing Tahan’s argument
that Latinos would be discouraged from learning English. The district
runs an English as a Second Language program for students with limited
In the pilot program, students who already speak Spanish but are
poor in English skip the Spanish class and go to ESL class.
“Non-English-speaking students are learning English, and we have
the bilingual program to do it,”Liess said.
Earlier in the day, he had said”This is only an issue because it’s
Like every district in New Jersey, Clifton is now required by the
state to teach all students a foreign language. Students will eventually
be tested for proficiency in the fourth, eighth, and 11th grades.
One resident has circulated a petition against the Spanish program
that she said has collected more than 800 signatures.
Gagnon, who seconded Tahan’s motion, asked, “What is Jersey City
and Newark doing? Are they giving one more period of English?” in
referring to predominantly minority-populated cities.
Joseph Kolodziej, who is challenging Tahan for a one-year seat,
said before the meeting that he supports the language mandate because he
believes it will help children develop intellectually.
“I’d like to see us be moving toward offering a choice of different
languages,”said Kolodziej, who attended the meeting.”But if you’re
looking to exclude one language, that has some ugly overtones.”
Also attending was Matt Ward, who is seeking one of the three,
three-year seats occupied by Gagnon. He also opposed doing away with
Spanish.”The primacy of English is not going to be threatened by