Although Maryam Ghatee does not speak French and has no connection to French culture, she has sent her third-grade daughter, Mona, to a local French immersion school—the French American School of Rhode Island (FASRI)—since prekindergarten. Ghatee, 38, was born in Iran in 1983. She lived in the US from ages two to seven before her family moved back to Iran, where she graduated from Shiraz University. Ghatee consistently felt dissatisfied with friendships and a sense of nonbelonging throughout her schooling and moved back to the US after graduation. With pale skin, blue eyes, and a standardized American accent, Ghatee often passes as a White American. However, she has struggled her whole life to form meaningful relationships with monolingual and monocultural people, whether American, Iranian, or other. As an adult, she learned of the term third culture kid, or TCK, an individual who “spent a significant part of [their] developmental years outside the parents’ culture,” says author David Pollock. Now identifying as a TCK, she realizes that her closest friends share this same identity. Ghatee initially dismissed the idea of sending her only child to a French school because neither she nor her husband speaks French. When she visited FASRI, an eighth-grade student tour guide informed her that many students do not speak French at home and still succeed at the school. Ghatee also learned that many of the students’ parents or grandparents are US immigrants. FASRI’s community includes families “from every continent and over 130 countries,” according to their website. Ghatee and her husband are Iranian American, and both of their parents live in Iran. In choosing FASRI for her daughter, she hoped Mona would grow up feeling a sense of belonging among peers from similarly international families, an experience Ghatee lacked. “For her to see that most of the parents speak English with an accent makes a big difference. It makes it more normal,” Ghatee says.
Over the years, FASRI’s international community exceeded Ghatee’s expectations. In kindergarten, Mona’s teachers gathered the students at a school assembly where they chanted the numbers from one to ten in nine different languages. On another day, Mona came home from school and, inspired by a friend who attended Russian school, said, “I want to go to Farsi school.” This surprised Ghatee, whose Iranian friends had told her stories of their children’s disinterest and refusal to speak Farsi. “Being bilingual is almost the minority in this school,” she says.
Another FASRI parent, Stephanie O., similarly does not speak French and has no connection to French culture. She was raised in New Jersey by German-speaking parents who exposed her to business contacts and friends from around the world. Since moving to Rhode Island in 2002, she has noticed that she tends to meet and befriend people who also grew up outside of the state. FASRI seems to attract parents and families who don’t speak French and are immigrants from non-English-speaking countries, Stephanie says. This year, when looking for a preschool for her three-year-old son, Soren, she was impressed by the rigorous French curriculum and also felt welcomed by FASRI’s community, which mirrors her international upbringing. FASRI isn’t unique in offering a French education and an international community. The Rhode Island school is only one of 540 schools across 138 countries in the AEFE, the Agency for French Education Abroad, according to their website. The AEFE network currently educates 368,000 students in French while following the French public school curriculum. Juliette Lange was one of these students growing up. She attended French immersion schools in France and Sweden while raised by a British mother and a French/British/German father. Identifying as international above all else, Lange has worked at Lycée International de Los Angeles (LILA) since 2009 and has been the admissions director since 2014.
“It’s a French school, but ultimately, it’s an international school,” Lange says of LILA. French schools have internationally upheld a reputation as the best schools in countries with histories of French colonization or cultural presence. This is particularly true in the Middle East, Lange says. “If you’re Iranian, the best school in town, pre-revolution , was the French school. It’s the same in Tunisia. It’s the same in Morocco. It’s the same in Lebanon.” In fact, Lebanon, a former colony, and Morocco, a former protectorate of France, lead all countries in the highest number of AEFE schools: 56 and 40 respectively. When families from these countries move to the US, they recognize FASRI and LILA as sister schools. The familiarity and academic reputation lead them to pick the French school, thus creating an international community above a French one, Lange says.
Despite the international community of French schools, race and racial diversity are uniquely tense topics in these French and American environments. When asked if LILA gathers data on students’ racial demographics, Lange says, “We have to. Of course, the French hate that. In France, the word race is banned in any government documentation.” France imposed this ban in 1978, after reckoning with their World War II collaboration with Germany that promoted Nazi racial theories, according to National Review. In contrast, in the US, “information on race is required for many federal programs and is critical in making policy decisions, particularly for civil rights,” according to the Census Bureau. French schools in the US exist at the intersection of these opposing cultures.
“At French school, there were no race dynamics,” says Sarkis “Sako” Tricha, a student at USC who attended French schools K–12. “There were only ethnic dynamics. If you’re African in France, that’s not a race. You’re from a place. The place is super vague, so you could call it a race, but it’s not thought of as a race the way Americans think of race.” “France likes to use this approach of being color blind,” says Gwen Aubrac, a student at McGill University who followed the French curriculum in France, Jamaica, and the US. “For example, in a lot of statistics or national information gathering, they’ll argue that they’re not looking at race or ethnicity because it shouldn’t make a difference.” However, ignoring race and ethnicity does not make them irrelevant. Abigail Chen and Sako Tricha know this from their experiences at Rochambeau French International School in Bethesda, Maryland.
Soon after Abigail Chen was born, her father attended INSEAD, an international business school in France, and found it to be the most multicultural place he’d ever been to. Her mother had been considering sending her to a French school after a colleague praised the French curriculum at an immersion school in Indiana. Inspired by global citizenship and a rigorous curriculum, Chen’s parents enrolled her and her sister in the French system in the hope that they’d learn Mandarin Chinese at home, English in the US, and French at school. Chen, a student at Wellesley College, attended French schools in Los Angeles and Palo Alto before attending Rochambeau from fourth to twelfth grade. Her class at Rochambeau was fairly racially diverse, Chen says. Her friend group consisted of students who were French, German, Ivorian, Malian, Burkinabé, and Moroccan. The largest ethnic or racial group was, “of course, the Frenchies from France,” followed by students of North African heritage, she says. However, Chen was one of only three Asian students in her high school and the only Asian student in her class of 66 people. With no traditional or historical connection to France or French culture, she felt culturally isolated. One day, the school picked students to be included in a photo-shoot, including Chen and her sister. While Chen ended up not being in the photos, her sister went to the auditorium and posed for photos with a White girl and a Black boy. Rochambeau used the photo on a promotional pamphlet to look more international, Chen says. On the other hand, attending French school was expected for Sako Tricha, who is half Moroccan and half Armenian. His uncles had attended Rochambeau after immigrating to the DC area from Morocco. Tricha went to Rochambeau from preschool to twelfth grade, with the exceptions of one year at a French immersion school in the Netherlands and freshman year at the American public school Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.
“I thought I was gonna do high school in English, and then I went there and hated it,” Tricha says of his freshman year. Differences between the French and American curriculums made transferring academically complicated. He felt unchallenged in his Spanish class, but he was placed in the lowest level math class, even though he was good at math at Rochambeau.
He experienced culture shock as well. “They would call me ‘the foreign kid’ and ‘Aladdin.’ I had felt very American at a French school, so not being American was frustrating. When people aren’t from many places, they don’t understand you as well.” In the Francophone world, Moroccan people are recognized as part of “a known minority,” albeit one that is seen as “immigrant and racially inferior,” he says. At Walt Whitman, he wasn’t recognized as American or Moroccan.
Racial demographics between the two schools, located a ten-minute drive from each other, were starkly different. “It was 3% Black,” Tricha says of Walt Whitman, “which coming from Rochambeau was painful.” He believes Rochambeau was very diverse and, though he doesn’t know the exact number, had a significantly higher percentage of Black students. “Twenty-five percent of our students are monolingual, monocultural Americans,” Juliette Lange explains of LILA. “Only 7% of Americans are African Americans [in LA], and often they’re not the people who are attracted to a French school. The Americans who are attracted to French schools see French as a status language.
They love French culture, they go there every year, and they love the food. They’re often straight-up White. But, of course, we attract the Francophone Africans.” Only 3.6% of Walt Whitman and 1.1% of Rochambeau students were African American in 2014, Tricha’s freshman year of high school. The difference between being African and African American might explain the disparity between Tricha’s impression and the NCES data. Students of international heritage seem to disappear in these statistics, perhaps hidden under “White” or the vague category “two or more races.” While North African and Middle Eastern people are labeled as “White,” Maryam Ghatee and Sako Tricha do not identify or, in Tricha’s case, look this way. While one in four Rochambeau students identify as “two or more races,” only one in 20 Walt Whitman students and one in 30 Bethesda residents identify as such. This data hints at but does not explicitly reveal the French school’s international community.
French schools are not without racism and prejudice. “The French are horribly racist against any Algerians or North Africans,” Juliette Lange says. Tricha’s uncles told him stories where teachers would say “You’re an Arab. You’re not going anywhere” or “You’re lazy because you’re Arab.” He recalls African friends being “treated like they didn’t exist” and teachers forgetting or confusing their names. During the summer of 2020, the US witnessed an intensifying reckoning with racial injustice and inequity following George Floyd’s death. This reckoning affected French schools as well. On June 30, 2020, students at Rochambeau created an Instagram page, Being Black at Rochambeau. Black students could anonymously submit racist experiences they had encountered through a Google Form, which were then posted on the social media page. In under two months, there were 80 posts telling 80 stories of racist encounters. One student, while playing volleyball, was told, “Take a 30-hour flight and go back to where you belong.” Another student who broke the school’s high jump record in eighth grade was told “it was easier for [them] because they were black and that’s the only thing they could be good at.”
Across the country at LILA, starting about five years ago, Juliette Lange noticed new questions from prospective parents. Parents began openly asking about topics such as, “What are you doing to make sure that your literature is not too White-centric?” About a year later, more and more Black parents were confronting the school, no longer putting up with microaggressions their children faced. “In good French reaction, we said, ‘Oh, don’t be silly. They’re only kids,’” she says. Several racially charged incidents— including one where fourth graders said the n-word in a playground discussion of swear words—pushed the school’s administrative staff to reconsider taking action. Again, Lange says the staff initially felt defensive, thinking, “We’re not racist. Why do we have to do any of this?”
Eventually, the staff read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, which was key in starting conversations and helping them understand the American perspective. Soon after, George Floyd’s death catalyzed the school to take action, and Lange was appointed director of diversity. In this position, Lange prioritized supporting the community of parents and families. “The idea is that as a community, we should be talking through these issues and seeing what we can do to make society a better place,” she says. She formed the parent alliance Parents for an Inclusive LILA, which created affinity groups around sexuality, race, and ethnicity; a book club with monthly meetings on topics related to racism and critical race theory; and the Bookshelf, which produces a monthly list of suggested books promoting diversity. LILA also brings in experts who speak on topics ranging from unconscious bias to Asian history and organizes a series of talks called Dialogues on Diversity, including a panel featuring French and American people discussing their different perspectives.
“A quarter of all staff meetings are now dedicated to teacher training,” Lange adds. “It’s been very hard.” Rosetta Lee, a diversity speaker and trainer, leads these trainings. However, Lee speaks in English, which is not the first language for the majority of the teachers. “It’s a very sensitive issue,” Lange says of the linguistic and cultural difference.
Juliette Lange, self-identified “British, middle-aged, and White,” looks forward to someone else taking over the position, but for now, she says, “The fear of doing it all wrong shouldn’t stop you from doing your best.”
French immersion schools in the US are beginning to rethink the way they approach race and culture, but at FASRI, Maryam Ghatee doesn’t mind that the majority of students are White. While she doesn’t know the exact data, she says that over 60% of Mona’s third-grade class this year is of European heritage. “The Whiteness comes second to the international diversity,” Ghatee says. “The fact that this kid is from Germany and that one is from Poland is stronger to me than this kid is White, and this kid is White, and this kid is White.”
Stephanie Obodda, [email protected]
Juliette Lange, [email protected]
Abigail Chen, [email protected]
Gwen Aubrac, [email protected]
Maryam Ghatee [email protected]
Sako Tricha [email protected]
Ingrid Ren is from the Bay Area but wants to move to Philly. Her writing has been published by Columbia College Chicago, post–magazine, and For Women Who Roar.