NEW-YORK – Johanne Picard, a New York City mother, gave birth to a girl 18 months ago, but she is already planning to enroll the toddler at the soon-to-be-opened New York French-American Charter School in 2012.
On June 2nd, the Department Of Education gave its approval for the charter school recommendation to the State Education Department to a warm reception from many French-speaking immigrant parents like Picard. The Haitian-born lawyer envisions her child being prepared for the international baccalaureate exam and speaking three languages, including French, like her.
“I was very fortunate to be raised in Haiti, and if my child can speak French and Creole that would be very important to me,” said Picard, who emigrated from Haiti more than 20 years ago.
“Overall, having the opportunity to communicate in other languages will open many other doors for her.”
Picard is among a diverse group of New York City parents and educators who have been advocating for a French language charter school for two years. The group, made up mostly of immigrants from Europe, West Africa, and the Caribbean, wanted a haven for the estimated 300,000 residents in the city whose mother tongue is French.
“The best way to do that is to integrate the American educational system into the French educational system,” said Corinne Bal, a 39-year-old attorney and mother of a five year old son and a three year old daughter, who first proposed the idea of a French-English school.
Spoken by 175 million people across the world, French is the official language of 32 countries. In Haiti, Creole is the official spoken language and French is the designated written language. French is also one of the three principal languages of diplomacy and international organizations.
In New York City, of the 300,000 who checked off French as their native language on the 2000 Census form, 180,809 admitted to speaking French Patois and Cajun and another 114,747 spoke Haitian Creole.
Within the city’s French-speaking communities, there’s an ongoing battle to have the language of the Dumas recognized at the mainstream level in the United States. More importantly, parents eagerly want to offer their children special opportunities that will lead to several university credits and scholarships all over the world.
That’s why the group of parents in Harlem – home to numerous French-speaking immigrants from West Africa – fought for the New York French American Charter School, NYFACS. With a location like Harlem, advocates envision the school will bring together the children of this multi–cultural French-speaking population and offer a new option to English-speaking parents eager to have their children gain fluency in French.
The French Academy will accept 150 students in three grades, each with three classes. All teachers must meet DOE teacher’s evaluation and be certified in bilingual education.
The school will adhere to a rigorous curriculum, aimed at preparing children for the International Baccalaureate in addition to New York State Regents high school diploma. The IB is a diploma recognized by schools worldwide, which will be meaningful and relevant no matter where in the world the students attend university.
The school will blend the rigorous standards of learning that are characteristic of the French educational system with American approaches that value individuality and critical thinking.
“When I saw the pamphlets about the creation of the school, I felt lucky,” said Johnny Celestin a Manhattan resident and father of one.
As the New York French-English Academy awaits the June 2nd Schools Chancellor Joel Klein’s final approval to begin operating in September 2010, some parents and advocates for French bilingual education wait with bated breath.
The same goes for the founders of Education Française New York, which submitted its proposal to the Department of Education for the creation of a French-English dual language school in 2007.
“Patience was key. Sometimes we felt that the wait was long,” Bal said.
“Now we feel much better but we also realize that we have many challenges ahead such as building the school.”
If recent trends in charter schools are any indication, the proposals bode well. Since 2002, the Department of Education has opened 63 charter schools across the city, including one this fall that will focus on Hebrew instruction. Some existing schools have been converted to charter schools over the years. By the 2009-2010 academic year, 100 charter schools are expected to be opened citywide.
“We strongly support charters and will work to help them open in New York City,” Education department spokesman Will Havemann said.
The United Federation of Teachers, a strong union whose support is key in most changes to the school system, is also supportive – as long as new charter schools’ creation does not violate employment and compensation terms for teachers.
“Foreign language-based charter schools are fine with us as long as students adhere to a rigorous and well-rounded curriculum, become proficient in English and can do well on state Regents English Language Arts tests,” UFT spokesman Ron Davis said.
Charter schools operate as independent and autonomous public schools, and typically rely on an active parent body. They cannot have any religious affiliation and must operate on an approved plan that outlines how they will function pedagogically, administratively, and fiscally.
Charter schools are funded through a combination of federal, state and local monies. Typically, their officials must also raise additional funds from individuals, foundations, and the privately-owned businesses.
Such specialized schools give students language-learning opportunities unmatched by traditional public schools, experts say, and they are starting to mushroom nationwide.
Part of a worldwide network of over 290 international schools, 40 French schools in the USA are attended by 13,000 American, French and foreign students.
Charter schools that focus on incorporating foreign languages are flourishing across the country. In New York, Education Française at first promoted dual language classes and has taken up the creation of a French-English bilingual school in Woodside, Queens. In Missouri, Academie Lafayette of Kansas City opened its doors in 1999, and both French and Spanish immersion charters are set to open this year in Saint Louis.
In South Florida, where many families speak French, some school districts also opened bilingual schools for Haitian, Jewish and Canadian parents who prefer such dual instruction.
In New York, there is not one specific area where French-speaking populations, or even of same country of origin, concentrate. The story of the NYFACS group illustrates how parents’ desire to cultivate their children within a French environment can inspire a scattered group toward a common cause.
Before even submitting its proposal to the education department in January, the group leveraged its access to education experts, keepers of French culture and other resources to create brochures, hold initial meetings to gauge interest and to devise the best options for the 600 parents who showed interest in the French Academy charter.
Fabienne Doucet, a professor at New York University’s School of Teaching and Learning, is one of academic experts who wrote the proposal for the French Academy charter in Harlem.
“The reason we opted for a charter school is that we felt we would have more flexibility to design a bilingual and multicultural curriculum that would allow our students to graduate fully bilingual and bi-literate,” Doucet said.
Many traditional public schools, like Public School 189 in East New York, list French or Spanish languages in their course offerings, in recognition of the cultural awareness and economic competitiveness that students gain from language learning.
At PS 151 in Woodside, applications for the French dual program, for children in Kindergarten and first-grade, outnumbers available seats. Naida Ryans, a parent coordinator there since 2003, said she sees interest from both French-speaking and non-French speaking parents.
But dual-language schools take it one step further, going by some experts findings that such multiple languages stimulates the brain and that bilingual children often outperform peers who speak only one language.
Erica Dilday, president of a consulting company that advises non-profit organizations, is excited about her 5-year-old daughter attending the school.
“I like the staff commitment to academic excellence,” Dilday, originally of Massachusetts, said. “I like the idea of including different culture, it is a world perspective that is valuable and I want my children to have that.”