The Domino Effect: Multiplying French Programs

It all started in April 2006 when three tenacious mothers walked into principal Giselle McGee’s office at P.S. 58 in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, hoping to convince her that a French after-school program would be a worthy addition to her school. Like these mothers, many French-speaking families in the neighborhood were looking to sustain their children’s French outside the home. Little did the French community know that Giselle would not only accept the after-school idea on the spot, but that their conversation would lead to New York’s first French dual-language program, and the avalanche of programs throughout the city that followed. The French dual-language story in New York highlights the powerful domino effect of the Bilingual Revolution. Behind the force of a committed and motivated community, dual-language programs can multiply to serve ever-growing populations of bilingual students.

The Influence of Supportive Advocates

Until the age of five, this instrumental principal Giselle was bilingual, speaking French at home with her mother and English with her father. It was only when she started Kindergarten in Staten Island that she abandoned her French skills, as none of her classmates spoke French. Giselle grew up in the 1960s, when assimilation was prioritized in recently-arrived immigrant communities. Elementary schools did not even offer foreign languages at the time, meaning that children could not build upon their home language in the classroom if they spoke a language other than English. This is how five-year-old French-speaking Giselle lost her mother tongue. It is a story all too common in the United States of decades past, and a phenomenon that recent trends in bilingual education are attempting to reverse.

With her own story in mind, Giselle enthusiastically inaugurated the French dual-language program at P.S. 58 in 2007. The positive encounter between the three mothers—Catherine Poisson, Anne-Laure Fayard, and Mary-Powel Thomas—and their committed principal paved the way for numerous groups to replicate their efforts. Following the lead of this original group, new parents organized themselves into a critical mass—receiving the support and commitment of key community stakeholders and school administrators. This movement led to the creation of dozens of French bilingual programs throughout New York City, as well as in several other cities across the United States, over the last ten years. The ongoing success of P.S. 58’s program encouraged new waves of parents to approach schools with French dual-language proposals, ready to do whatever it takes to bring bilingual education to their local neighborhoods. To this day, educators and researchers in the U.S. and abroad point to this particular program as a shining example of the power of dual-language programs in the 21st century.

As other communities in the city began to hear of P.S. 58’s success, a growing synergy emerged between several organizations. These included the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, several non-profit and philanthropic organizations, local French-language news magazines,41 and Education en Français à New York, a volunteer-based organization whose mission is to provide French offerings in neighborhood public schools. This dynamic collaboration facilitated the multiplication of the number of French dual-language programs in New York in a remarkably short period of time. It planted the seeds for the original bilingual revolution in New York City in what would come to be known as the “French Bilingual Revolution.”

The Public School Option

This revolution was propelled by a growing interest in bilingual education among the French-speaking community, compounded with a need to serve its diverse populations within the public school system. In 2012, I estimated that 120,000 people in New York spoke French at home, including 22,000 children—revealing a potential to fill over 50 French-English dual-language programs in the city. In the New York metropolitan area, French-speaking expatriate families—as well as American and international families interested in French education—who can afford private school tuition have excellent educational offerings to choose from. Well-established institutions such as the Lycée Français of New York, the United Nations International School, the Lyceum Kennedy, the French-American School of New York in Larchmont, the International School of Brooklyn, the Ecole Internationale de New York, the French American Academy, and the French American School of Princeton provide high-quality bilingual education programs following accredited curricula in compliance with France’s own national educational standards. In these schools, families enjoy the benefits and opportunities provided by bilingual education—for a price—and their children are able to master both English and French at a very high level.

In the early 2000s, New York saw an influx of young French-speaking families who could not afford to pay these schools’ tuition fees. At the same time, several neighborhoods in West Brooklyn, Harlem, Queens, and the South Bronx witnessed a steady increase in their Francophone populations, including immigrants from Europe, Canada, Africa, and the Caribbean. These newly-arrived populations hoped to maintain their children’s language skills while adjusting to life in the United States. This led to a massive growth in demand for French dual-language programs, spurred by the presence of French speakers who often went unnoticed by school authorities, as many also spoke other primary languages at home such as Wolof, Bambara, and Creole, and were identified as speakers of those languages only by school officials. French dual-language programs also became extremely popular among American and international families whose dominant language was not French, but were enticed by the idea of bilingual education for their children.

Growing the Revolution

The programs that opened in 2011 at both P.S. 110 in Greenpoint and P.S. 133 in Boerum Hill receive hundreds of applications each year for the small number of seats available in the French dual-language Kindergarten classes. These programs were initiated by parents of French heritage, some born in the United States, others in Canada or France. The majority of applicants are from English-speaking monolingual families with no cultural or linguistic ties to French. At other schools in Brooklyn, such as P.S. 20 in Clinton Hill and P.S. 03 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the French dual-language program was actually initiated by either American parents who did not speak French or educators who wanted to improve offerings for underserved families from French-speaking countries.

Motivated parents like Virgil de Voldère and Susan Long, a French-American couple who wished for their two sons to be fully bilingual and biliterate, were inspired to launch a French dual-language program at P.S. 84 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2008. Virgil explains how his own initiative started:

My wife Susan proposed this idea of doing a French dual-language program. We all got together and started planning on opening the program the following September. This was February. By May, we had gathered information from 100 families in the neighborhood. Robin Sundick [then principal of P.S. 84] worked with her hierarchy to cut all the red tape. By September, by some miracle, we had a program. What I tell all the Francophone parents, and especially parents coming from France who are used to a state-run educational system, is that in America they can really make a difference. They can organize, they can propose, and they have a right to have their heritage language spoken at school.

To achieve their goal, Virgil and Susan enlisted the help of another parent at the school, Talcott Camp, an American civil rights attorney, mother of two, and Francophile who hoped for her own children to become bilingual. She later became the president of Education en Français à New York. She explains her own participation in the initiative as the following:

I was interested in language acquisition but, really, the reason I wanted a dual-language program for my kids was that I didn’t want them to grow up monolingual. It just seems so impoverished. I wanted them to grow up with more than one language, for the richness of it and for the perspective it would give them on politics and culture—even mentally. We would have loved a French dual-language program but it just didn’t occur to me that it could happen. It was really Virgil who said “Pourquoi pas?” [“Why not?”]. The principal at the time, Robin Sundick, said to him, “If you bring me enough Francophone families, I will do it.” And that’s when the work started.

As promised, Virgil, Susan, and Talcott delivered the necessary numbers to make their French immersion vision a reality. The school they chose, P.S. 84, happened to be a pioneer in dual-language Spanish education, and was able to mobilize their existing dual-language administrative structure to quickly and efficiently open the French program in September 2008. Today, the program serves approximately 250 students with origins from Europe, Canada, the Caribbean, and Africa. By the end of 5th grade, all dual-language students are bilingual and biliterate, with a firm grasp of Francophone and American cultures. This success was made possible because of parents, who canvassed the neighborhood, designed posters, updated websites, and organized open houses.

Since September 2007, fourteen public schools in New York have opened French dual-language programs, ten of which are still in operation. The four programs that ultimately closed failed because of poor planning or a change in school leadership—significant hurdles to clear in the implementation of dual-language education. The success stories include seven dual-language elementary school programs, including public schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn and the New York French-American Charter School, a charter school in Harlem. Additionally, three middle schools offer a French dual-language curriculum through the 8th grade: M.S. 51 in Park Slope, M.S. 256 on the Upper West Side, and the Boerum Hill School for International Studies in Brooklyn. The latter is currently in the process of implementing the first French dual-language International Baccalaureate program in a public school in the United States, with plans to take dual-language students all the way to 12th grade, culminating with a bilingual International Baccalaureate diploma.

As more and more students in the French dual-language program are now entering high school, it is crucial that schools ensure the continuum of their education in both English and French. New York City’s French dual-language programs currently serve over 1,700 students—with estimations of the total number of students served as nearly double that amount if one includes families that have relocated or dropped out, or programs have closed, since 2007. Current projections indicate that an additional 7,000 students could benefit from these programs by 2020, if the current wave of momentum continues to gain the support of new school principals, community members, and parents.

Growing Pains and Managing Success

Regrettably and perhaps peculiarly, the French Bilingual Revolution is hindered by a lack of access to space rather than a lack of interest. As a result, more families—both French-speaking and otherwise—have been turned away than have been accepted into French dual-language programs. The number of seats available across the city remains limited, generating fierce competition among applicants. Fortunately, this problem can be combatted. Through partnerships with new schools and the engagement of new parents, the expansion of French dual-language programs can render these opportunities more accessible to eager families in New York City and beyond.

Still, classroom space is not the only problem that limits the development of these programs. As the number of French dual-language programs continues to grow, so does the need for qualified teachers. This predicament is often accompanied by various hurdles in recruiting competent, credentialed, bilingual teachers to work in public schools. At present, the majority of candidates for bilingual teaching positions in the United States are American citizens or green card holders, as schools are often unable to grant work permits to teachers from abroad due to complicated bureaucratic procedures. A degree in bilingual education is often required, and in New York City it is mandatory to have New York State certification to teach in a public school. Attracting exceptional teaching candidates in large numbers has become a crucial element in establishing bilingual programs. As a response to this need, Hunter College in Manhattan, which has offered a master’s degree in Spanish bilingual education since 1983, added a French track to its course offerings. To encourage students to apply to Hunter’s program and similar programs throughout in the city, the Société des Professeurs de Français et Francophones d’Amérique established a scholarship program to support new prospective French dual-language teachers.

Scholarship and certificate programs such as these are critical to dual-language programs becoming self-sustainable in the future.
In addition to qualified teachers, there is also a great need for educational materials, especially classroom and school library books adapted to different subjects and skill levels. Fundraising has assumed an important role in meeting these needs. Parents with experience managing campaigns and large-scale finances have been instrumental in raising the required funds to support schools that house French dual-language programs. A team led by professional fundraisers and dual-language parents assisted the Cultural Services of the Embassy of France and its partner, the FACE Foundation, in setting up a city-wide, multi-year fundraising campaign to serve larger numbers of French dual-language children, particularly in underserved neighborhoods in the Bronx, Queens, and East Brooklyn where many Francophone families reside.

The initiative has now morphed into a nation-wide program, the French Dual-language Fund, under the leadership of Bénédicte de Montlaur, Cultural Counselor of the Embassy of France. Its aim is to build an enduring network of dual-language and immersion programs anchored firmly within the American educational landscape. The fund has received the support of generous individuals, foundations, corporations, and public institutions. Additionally, organizations such as the French Institute Alliance Française, the Committee of French-Speaking Societies, the Alfred and Jane Ross Foundation, the Quebec Government Delegation, and even the French Senate—thanks in part to the support of senators representing French citizens residing outside of France—all became ardent supporters of and generous advocates for the New York City French dual-language programs.

Jane Ross, an international educator and former English teacher at the Lycée Français of New York, was also instrumental in establishing the French Heritage Language Program, hosted by the French Embassy and FACE Foundation. Over the last ten years, this program has helped young immigrants of French-speaking backgrounds preserve their linguistic heritage while adapting to life in the United States. It offers free French classes through the Internationals Network for Public Schools, an organization that welcomes newly-arrived immigrants.

Most of the students enrolled in the program hail from West Africa and Haiti. Through after-school and in-school support, the program builds upon the students’ French literacy and accelerates their mastery of English. Students also have the opportunity to earn college credits by passing selective examinations while in the program. All in all, more than 3,000 students from Kindergarten to 12th grade have benefitted from the French Heritage Language Program since its creation in 2006. The program has become an integral part of Francophone education in New York and an important partner for dual-language programs, as well as a key player in the French Bilingual Revolution.

The synergy of the New York French dual-language program story perfectly illustrates the critically important role of parents and educators in the development of dual-language programs, as well as outside organizations that can provide critical support in a variety of ways. These vignettes are evidence that invested individuals can join forces to respond to a community’s needs, establish successful fundraising campaigns, and create partnerships with institutions that have the capacity to provide assistance in solving problems that are simply too extensive and complex for a parent group to solve alone.

As we have seen, thousands of children have benefited from the combined efforts of many individuals, groups, and organizations devoted to French bilingual education in New York public schools. Hopes remain high that even more children will be served in the near future. The French dual-language story represents everything the Bilingual Revolution has to offer: quality programs in public schools for children of all ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. If the Bilingual Revolution continues to spread at this incredible rate, there is no telling how far it will go.

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