French à la mode

Gaétan Mathieu sees bilingualism as the key to the future of French in the U.S.

From California to Florida, from Utah to Minnesota, French education in the U.S. has been on the rise for the past ten years. The number of French-English bilingual programs in public schools has increased dramatically, thanks to people who believe in the benefits of bilingualism and the support of local governments in favor of this type of education.

The French-heritage population of the U.S. has increased by 35% over the past 15 years. French expatriates come from diverse backgrounds. Not long ago, expatriation was synonymous with the wealthy households of French professionals posted overseas by corporations. Their daily expenses, including housing and schooling, were paid by their employers. The new generation of expatriates is younger and less stable: they can’t always afford French private schools, which provide a high level of education but at an exorbitant cost. Invested in the education of their children, some parents have decided to take matters into their own hands by working with educators to create programs that respond to their own educational needs.

In New York, the movement toward French bilingual education in public schools began in 2007, when the city’s first dual-language classroom opened its doors in Brooklyn. As of the beginning of the 2014 school year, seven regular public schools in New York offered classes in both French and English for elementary students, along with one charter school in Harlem, NYFACS. Additionally, three middle schools, have offered bilingual programs since 2014. A fourth, called the School for International Studies (K497), will open in 2015, and will eventually be home to an International Baccalaureate program.

The New York experience
The public school in Carroll Gardens, PS 58, is a pioneer of the bilingual movement in New York. The school opened its first bilingual program with the help of EFNY (French Education in New York), a parents’ association. EFNY’s two-step method has proven to be effective and now serves as a model: parents first convince school principals that there are enough families interested, then the French Embassy steps in to provide logistical and political support that lends credibility to the parents’ request. “Many French families have seen the success of bilingual programs initiated by parents’ associations in New York and have asked themselves, ‘Why not here?’” explains Fabrice Jaumont, education attaché of the French Embassy in New York and founder of Newyorkinfrench.net.

In 2013 and in partnership with the Downtown/Midtown French-English Dual-Language Program Parent Groups — an association of 150 families, EFNY, and the Petite École preschool — the embassy put together an online guide to help parents start bilingual programs.

Jaumont has been surprised by the reach of the initiative: “I get calls from parents across the U.S. and even from French expats living in other foreign countries. I’ve been contacted by Italian and Japanese families because they are fascinated by the success of French bilingual programs in New York. I try to help them from a distance by adapting myself to the logic of each country.”

California joins the movement
In 2012, Muriel Gassan, the mother of a French family, successfully organized a program at the Franklin Magnet School in Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles. Because this is the only elementary school in the region that offers French immersion classes, it attracts a large number of families from Los Angeles who are ready to spend an hour, morning and night, driving their children to school. “Before bringing my proposal to the Glendale school district, I contacted parents and instructors involved with bilingual programs in New York to ask for advice,” explains Muriel Gassan. Originally from France’s Basque Country, she arrived in Los Angeles in 1998 and founded the Frenchip organization in 2009. Frenchip is an association of 150 parents who want their children to speak French and English, but who are unable to afford the tuition of private bilingual schools.

“Before, parents wanted their children to follow the French national curriculum taught in private schools at any cost, because they expected to one day return to France. Today, many of them choose to stay in the U.S., but the scholarships dispensed by the French government are not enough to enroll their children in private establishments,” explains Gassan. The program in Glendale currently has 72 students, half of whom are of French heritage. One hundred and fifty families are on the waiting list, a sign of enthusiasm but also of a lack of facilities. “A large part of the French population lives in West LA, around Santa Monica. Some of them have moved east in order to enroll their children at Glendale. There is now a strong sense of community around the school.” The immersion program benefits the entire region. A French immersion preschool called “Le Jardin des Enfants,” opened in the spring of 2014, while two more preschools with bilingual programs are expected to open in 2015.

In New Jersey, Minnesota, Colorado, Alas­ka, Florida, and Georgia, bilingual programs initiated by French-heritage families and consulates should flourish in the years to come.

In Arlington, near Washington, DC, Aude Rabault is attempting to create a program like those in New York. “French, Canadian, Belgian, Moroccan, and American families are interested.” The reasons are the same as in the rest of the U.S. “Rochambeau, the private high school, isn’t an option for me: it’s too expensive and my employer doesn’t help cover the cost of tuition. Also, because my husband is American, we don’t plan to return to France, and I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for my three-year-old daughter to follow the French curriculum. However, I would be disappointed if she weren’t exposed the French language outside of the home. Bilingual programs seem to be the ideal solution.”

Utah, a new Eldorado of bilingualism
Utah has the second-highest number of students learning French, after Louisiana. In this state, better known for its Mormon community than for its immersion schools, 3,000 students between the ages of five and twelve study French every day. Less than 10% of them are of French heritage. This surprising statistic is the result of local education policies.

In 2008, Utah’s State Senate voted on Law 80, known as the Critical Languages Program, which allocates funds to establish bilingual programs in Chinese, Spanish, and French. The goal was to open 100 immersion classes for 30,000 students by 2015. These numbers were reached in 2014, just six years after the initiative was launched, with a total of 118 bilingual programs across the state, including 14 in French.

“Legislation seemed to be the best way to establish a large number of bilingual programs. In the beginning we were supposed to focus on Chinese and Spanish, but because I learned French in school and now know that it’s a useful language, I asked for French to be added to the law,” explains Gregg Roberts, the coordinator of immersion programs for Utah’s Department of Education. For Roberts, bilingualism is necessary for the economic survival of Utah, a state without a foreign border. “The ultimate goal is to educate our children so they can function in a global world. As adults on the job market, they won’t only have to compete with students from California or New York, but also with students from China and France.” In response to skeptics’ claims that Utah’s bilingual programs are only a means to facilitate Mormon proselytization, Roberts smiles. “If this had been the case, we would have done it decades ago. The Church has nothing to do with the creation of bilingual programs. But it is certainly true that missionaries’ experiences throughout the world have brought Utah’s parents a better understanding of the benefits of bilingualism.”

Jean-Claude Duthion, director of the Education Department at the French Embassy in Washington, DC, agrees with Roberts. “This issue affects the state, not a religious community. The Sate of Utah simply took advantage of the Mormons’ expertise in the area of language education. It’s no coincidence that one of the best language schools is Brigham Young University in Provo.” According to him, Utah and New York represent two models of bilingualism in the U.S., although their approaches are diametrically opposed. “In New York, French-heritage families went to school principals and asked them to start bilingual programs — demand came from the bottom. In Utah, on the other hand, the demand came from the top. The state understood that bilingualism was the only way to secure students’ access to major universities and high-paying jobs. Both methods were successful.”

Officials from the Departments of Education of Wyoming, North and South Carolina, Arkansas, and Rhode Island have come to Utah to study these bilingual programs and emulate them. Georgia, one of the first states to follow this model, opened two French bilingual programs in Atlanta in 2013. Last year, Delaware established programs in Chinese and in Spanish. “We hope that French immersion classes will soon open,” explains Duthion. “But we have to prove to the state that many economic transactions are completed in French and that there is a real incentive for young Americans to learn the language.”

Although optimistic about the future of French in the U.S., Duthion has some reservations. “Following a New York Times article on the bilingual revolution in New York, the French press proclaimed that the language of Molière was back in fashion. That’s not the case. No one is fighting over French dictionaries in book stores.”

More than a few hurdles stand in the way of additional French immersion classes. In Los Angeles, Richland Avenue Elementary School hoped to open a bilingual program in the fall of 2014. The Los Angeles school district rejected the proposal, arguing that the school could not prove its long-term sustainability. Another challenging school district is in Fairbanks, Alaska, population 32,000, where Magali Philip has been fighting for a new charter school since 2012. “The district of Fairbanks has never helped us gather parental support. The State of Alaska allots us a ridiculously small budget unless we enroll more than 150 students, a number which is impossible to attain in a town like Fairbanks. I just hope that people’s attitudes toward bilingualism will evolve.” The final challenge for Magali Philip is to find a French teacher certified by the State of Alaska. “When you live in a big city, it’s easier to attract French teachers. But in Alaska... The solution would be for a law to be passed like in Utah. This would enable us to recruit teachers from France.”

Indeed, agreements have been signed with the academies of Bordeaux, Grenoble, Nancy-Metz, Créteil, and Poitiers, allowing their teachers be certified to teach French in Utah. “The state’s administrative regulations are aligned with its political will,” says Duthion. “One cannot casually ask an American administration to change its laws to authorize noncertified teachers and force a partnership with France. Only with the political will of the state’s Department of Education can the law evolve. In the Miami-Dade district, for example, uncertified teachers are not allowed to teach.”

Another obstacle is the competition with programs in other languages. In Fairfax, Virginia, Herndon Elementary School’s immersion program will shut down in 2019, the time it will take students who are currently enrolled in English-French classes to graduate. The program will be replaced by Spanish immersion classes, despite the efforts made by American and francophone parents to save the French program. The decision was made by the principal, Ann Gwynn, to adapt her school to the needs of the local community. Hispanic students, who now make up 40% of the student body, represented only 2.5% of enrolled students in 1988, the year the French program began. To justify her decision, the principal pointed out that, over the past nine years, 46% of students who opted for French immersion did not complete the program: the classrooms get emptier every year.

In many cities, the primary obstacle to bilingual education is the lack of funding. “Books and resources are very expensive. At PS 58, each student reads 50 books per year. Without additional support, a grant, or private funds, the budgets of small cities are insufficient,” explains Fabrice Jaumont. “In Brooklyn, we were able to create programs because they helped schools that were struggling, that were forced to cut back on monolingual classes as families left. Bilingual programs were not replacing monolingual ones.” The addition of new classes increases the total enrollment of the school, which in turn entitles the school to a bigger budget from the Department of Education. “Before the arrival of bilingual programs, PS 58 had 350 students. Today, the school has 900, 300 of whom are enrolled in the French program. But it’s not always easy to convince principals that French is still a useful language.” In New York, which has 22,000 francophone children, Fabrice Jaumont estimates that 60 additional bilingual programs could be created. “The Cultural Services of the embassy have provided money to buy books, train teachers, and organize training seminars. But we must turn toward private giving if we are to continue developing immersion classes. We need donors who believe in bilingualism.”

Several months ago, the education attaché of the French Embassy took on a new challenge: to revitalize French in regions historically tied to France. “There’s a strong francophone presence in Maine even if it is sometimes forgotten. We must reintroduce the new generation to the French language. We have started this work under the French Heritage Language Program. More is to be done,” he explains. He would also like to develop immersion programs in rural areas along the Canadian border. “I went to Plattsburgh, in the north of New York State, where I saw people from Quebec crossing the Canadian border just to go to the mall. I saw clients speaking in French and salespeople who didn’t understand and answered in English. If we extrapolate this kind of situation, we can measure the potential impact of bilingualism. In this city, much of the signage is already in French and English. The presence of the Canadian aeronautics firm Bombardier is also an argument for developing French immersion programs.”

Americans still need to be convinced that bilingualism is not only for francophone immigrants and their children. Whether the push comes from a francophile politician or American parents who want to teach their children French, the major expansion of French-language education depends on the support of the American public.

Gaétan Mathieu is a freelance French journalist based in New York City.