Parents want French dual language program


A view of Cultural Services of the French Embassy, where Fabrice Jaumont works everyday. Photo: Winni Zhou

The French Embassy, where education attache Fabrice Jaumont works to expand French language instruction in the city. Photo: Winni Zhou

Fabrice Jaumont usually does not work on weekends. But one Saturday last month, he prepared a bundle of handouts and brought them to Bryant Park as part of a Taste of France event, where he met with parents and public school principals who hope to expand the French-English dual language program in a school system that can barely finance existing programs.

Given the economics, Jaumont, the education attaché at the French Embassy in New York, seeks funding from a variety of sources – the Department of Education (DOE), the embassy, Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs) and private donors. But growing the program will demand a commitment from schools and their principals, who must assign additional space to these special classrooms. For that, Jaumont needs a passionate parent base. It has worked elsewhere in the city.

“A lot of people during the Taste of France [event] came to me and said, ‘I wish you were here 20 years ago,’” Jaumont said. “‘Then we would have put our children in your schools. We didn’t have these options 20 years ago, and our children lost their French.’”

The eight public schools that currently offer the program are located either in Brooklyn or upper Manhattan. Midtown and downtown are missing from the map, but that may be about to change. The program may soon extend to Chelsea, Jaumont said.

Nearly 90 percent of the approximately 400 dual language programs in public schools in New York City are conducted in Spanish or Mandarin Chinese, Jaumont said. As of 2012, the top two languages spoken by long-term English Language Learners (ELL) in the city were Spanish and Chinese, at 84.5 and 4.8 percent, respectively. French speakers accounted for only 0.6 percent.

The U.S. Census showed that as of 2011, 120,000 New Yorkers spoke French at home, including 22,000 children aged between eight and 17. Eight public and eight private schools in the city currently offer dual language instruction in French and English, serving a total of around 4,000 students. For those who are interested in a dual language program but cannot afford the high tuition charged by private schools, spaces in public schools are very limited.

The popularity of French should drive more schools to develop programs, Jaumont said. “French is a big language,” he said. “Many people want [to learn it].”

The first French-English program in a New York City public school began at P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn in 2007. With help and lobbying efforts from the French Embassy, non-profit educational organizations and parents who wish to send their children to learn French at public schools, the number of schools offering the program has increased steadily. Jaumont hopes that two more public schools will begin the program next year, and that the total number of public schools offering the program will double in two or three years.

After attending a forum hosted by the French Embassy in January, a group of parents including Hélène Godec and Marion Hurstel, whose children attend La Petite Ecole, a French preschool on the Upper West Side, became interested in the public school dual language program and are pushing to start the program at midtown and downtown schools.

Godec, a mother who is from France, helped create an online questionnaire and set up meetings. She and Hurstel started a Facebook page and posted student recruitment messages on online community boards encouraging parents to sign their children up for French-English education.

However, part of the difficulty in initiating the program is to have enough children of the same age to fill a class. The program requires half anglophone children and half francophone children, Jaumont said. Since most classes have 30 children, 15 native French speakers in class is a must, as well as 15 English speakers who want to learn French. To fulfill the requirement, parents are trying to find a district with a large population of French speakers.

“We talked to people in [our] neighborhood, explained to them how we can get [the program] started,” Godec said. “And also what benefits we [and our children] can get from participating [in] the bilingual program.”

As of May, the downtown/midtown parent group had 150 families. Parents are proactive because they want their children to retain their cultural heritage. “They are afraid that children [will] forget their grandparents’ language,” Jaumont said. “That fear is usually the driver that pushes people to react. Sometimes, if one parent is a French speaker, the other is an English speaker or other language speaker, one language will disappear. And here, English is dominant.”

According to the online questionnaire conducted by Godec and Hurstel’s parent group, 100 children, or 76 percent of those whose parents wanted a French-English program, live in District 2, which covers lower and midtown Manhattan and extends north to 59th Street on the west side and to 97th street on the east side. This District includes neighborhoods such as Midtown West, Midtown East, and the Upper East Side.

Extract of Godec and Hurstel’s online questionnaire shows where the group of parents are living in the city. Photo: Marion Hurstel

Extract of Godec and Hurstel’s online questionnaire shows where the group of parents are living in the city. Photo: Marion Hurstel

But Godec does not think it will be a problem for children from different districts to enroll in the program. “Some schools have different policies on accepting kids regardless of zoning if kids are francophone,” she said. “But it all depends on the principals.”

Godec said some French children actually speak better English than French, which does not allow them to count as French natives in the class. “If you really want to open the program, it’s better that francophone kids don’t speak English well,” she said.

Jaumont added that there is an entrance exam to distinguish native French speakers from English-speaking children. “Some French kids just have the passport, but they can’t speak French well,” he said.

Lack of space is one of the reasons many downtown schools are unable to offer bilingual programs, said Talcott Camp, president of Education Françaisà New York (EFNY), a volunteer-run non-profit organization promoting French language instruction in the New York City public schools.

If a new program starts, the school must have a classroom for the first year kindergarten children, then two classrooms for the first grade as the programs grow and students continue to participate throughout their school years. The number of children in the dual language programs multiplies as the children get older, requiring more classrooms.

“In six years, the school has to have the ability to open six classrooms for children K-5 in the foreign language track,” said Hannah Helms, a parent whose children attend P.S. 84 in Brooklyn, and who was involved in the creation of M.S. 256’s program on the Upper West Side. “Of course, you still have the one or more tracks of monolingual classes [for other students in grades] K-5.”

For now, the parent group is only looking for five- or six-year-old children, who will be attending school next year. The next step is to talk to more principals in Midtown in the hope of finding an ideal school. “Some of the principals can be cultivated,” Godec said.

Another difficulty is finding qualified teachers. Work visa requirements mean that many French natives have fewer chances to go abroad and teach in the U.S. than others who do not need working authorizations to teach American children, Helms said. Hiring local teachers and helping them get New York State certification costs money.

“Certifications are expensive,” Helms said. “So I hope Fabrice, [Jaumont, the French education official] will find more grants and scholarships for teachers.”

Jaumont added that it is not easy to create more bilingual teachers to meet the current demand; meanwhile, his core concern is parents’ commitment. To make the dual language program work, parents have to commit to keeping their kids in French-English classes from kindergarten through middle school graduation.

Children who quit the program not only give up their own bilingual education but also may jeopardize the language education of other students and the program itself. Jaumont said there were six to seven families who dropped out after primary school last year, forcing him to find more students to fill the vacant spots. “It’s almost impossible,” he said. “It’s hard to find either a student in the same grade with equivalent French proficiency, or a new French immigrant kid.”