Nathalie Rothschild and her 12-year-old son Nathan switch between French and English when they talk to each other. But they have one important rule: always start and finish a sentence in the same language.
When they moved to Brooklyn from Bangladesh two years ago, Nathan had only a rudimentary grasp of English. He can now conduct an entire conversation in fluent English and is proud of his American accent.
“When I first arrived in New York, my English was really low and had this big French accent,” he said, laughing, “Now I know how to write, I know how to read. I know how to do a lot of stuff.”
The sixth grader largely owes the improvement to his enrollment in a French dual language program at K497, also known as the School for International Studies (SIS) in Brooklyn. It’s the first and only public middle and high school in New York City where all students will eventually follow a dual language curriculum in French and English. Nathan and about 100 other sixth graders began the pilot program this school year. Additional grades will be phased in next fall.
Dual language programs have been expanding to accommodate for the growing number of non-English-speaking students. As of September 2015, city public schools offered 182 dual language programs, an increase from 143 in 2013-2014. In early April, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced an additional 29 would open next September.
French dual language programs have been at the forefront of this expansion, with the third-largest number of programs in the city (Spanish has the most; Mandarin second most.). Parents like Rothschild have played an instrumental role in setting up such programs, coming together to lobby the Department of Education with the backing of the French embassy, which has lent financial help and logistical support.
Rothschild, 47, works at an international nonprofit and carefully considered her son’s education before accepting a job offer in New York. Having lived in eight different countries, Nathan had always attended French international schools that follow France’s national curriculum.
While New York has private options catering to francophone students like Nathan, the rise of dual language programs in public schools comes as a huge relief to mobile French-speaking families who cannot afford private school.
“When we came to New York, it was a big concern because his English was very basic and I was very worried,” Rothschild said. “I was looking at private schools that taught French, but they are extremely expensive . . . It was very important for him and for myself. He grew up [speaking] French and it’s part of our culture.”
Some French-speaking families turn to after school programs to enable their children to stay connected to their linguistic heritage. Joseph Martin, who is American, and his French wife, Marine Prissette, wanted their children to receive a full bilingual education. While they speak French at home, Martin and Prissette wanted the children to develop fluency beyond conversational skills.
“The importance is also keeping up the reading and writing,” said Martin, stepfather of Prisette’s son Liam Kelly, an 11-year-old sixth grader enrolled at SIS. “We want him to have an education in two languages.”
Liam was one of the pioneering students who joined New York City’s first public school dual language program in French at P.S 58 in Carroll Gardens. That program launched in 2007, and 10 public school programs across the city now serve 1,500 students, a small fraction of the estimated 22,000 children living in French-speaking homes across the city, according to the Cultural Services office of the French embassy. An initiative led by the embassy and the nonprofit Face Foundation, seeks to bring bilingual education to at least 7,000 children in public schools.
“There is a need to preserve the French language among francophone families, and that joins the interest of the embassy and of the French government to promote the French language, ” said Fabrice Jaumont, the embassy’s education attaché and dual language program officer.
France has a long tradition of exporting its uniform national curriculum, and approximately 648 private schools around the world have adopted this educational model. But with fees exceeding $30,000 a year per child at schools like New York’s Lycée Français, this private education is often unaffordable. Supporting bilingual programs in the city’s public schools has become a new way for France to continue promoting the French language abroad and to help its citizens.
“We are opening up a new page with public schools,” Jaumont said.
French public institutions provide an estimated $100,000 to $200,000 a year to finance educational material and teachers’ trainings for the dual language programs in the New York City schools, according to Jaumont. The programs are entirely managed by the city’s Department of Education. The embassy’s support has been mostly logistical, coaching parents on how to ask local authorities to open a dual language track and reassuring unsure families to get on board.
France is not the only country seeking to promote its language abroad, said Ron Woo, deputy director at the New York State Regional Bilingual Education Resource Network, which helps district schools set up language programs. The Chinese government sends teachers to the U.S. to teach Mandarin, he noted, and European countries have long had government-backed cultural institutes around the world.
“If the U.S. wishes to compete on the foreign market, they need a citizenry that has those language skills,” said Woo. “It is really the global market driving this,” he added.
The French embassy worked with Rothschild and others who were part of a founding group of parents who lobbied for a French dual language program at SIS, a school that already offered the International Baccalaureate curriculum. In less than six months, parents secured the commitment of principal Jillian Juman, who instead of just opening a French language track overhauled the whole school with the plan to phase in dual language education to all students.
The principal’s openness surprised Rothschild.
“I’ve never seen that in France,” she said. “That would never happen that a school principal would allow parents to suggest, to be involved.”
Although he is not thrilled that he has to write more essays, Nathan has also been responsive to this new system that allows him to express his own opinion, a departure from France’s more rigid educational approach.
“In France they say ‘This is the right response.’ But here you are allowed to say ‘No, that is wrong,’” he said.
Video by Valerie Dekimpe