“Monsieur, I left my pull dans la classe,” a second grader tells Monsieur Gaboriau in a French-English hybrid.
At the New York French American Charter School in Harlem, the city’s first public school to offer instruction primarily in French, interwoven communication is commonplace.
“Students don’t translate between languages,” said Claire Zaglauer, assistant principal. “They just see it as an extension of their vocabulary. So there are two words for sweater: ‘pull’ and ‘sweater.’”
But while the school attempts to redefine education for French-speaking communities in New York, it faces the challenge of recovering from serious educational and administrative problems.
The school, which opened in 2010, was one of seven the Department of Education put on probation at the end of last year and has worked to meet compliance deadlines to keep its classrooms open.
Once off probation, the school must get its charter renewed in 2014. It will have to prove to the department that it meets a specific community need and follows regulations.
The department reported last year that the French American school failed to adhere to regulations regarding background checks, discipline, hiring policies, teacher certification and parents association organization.
The school has since overhauled its leadership, bringing in a new principal and assistant principal and reshaping its board of trustees. It also restructured its PTA and holds regular public meetings as required.
“Compliance is getting higher; things are coming together a lot more.” said Zaglauer.
Although the school received a C overall in its 2011-12 progress report, it scored an F on student progress, based on results of third grade tests in English language arts and math.
The school administration argues that many of its challenges stem from teaching students in two languages. The American curriculum doesn’t correspond exactly to French-speaking systems in other countries, so teachers must design their own courses.
“It’s still a work in progress,” said Principal Edith Boncompain, originally from Lyon, France. This practice will ensure that teaching standards are consistent, she said. The school adapts the educational system used in France.
“The Department of Education has challenges in understanding our mission, because it doesn’t exist anywhere else,” Boncompain said. “The main thing to look for is how well the children transfer one skill to another language.”
The school teaches approximately 70 percent of classes in French, using elements from both education systems.
This is crucial to low- and middle-income French-speaking families, who want their children to read and write in their native tongue, yet are unable to afford private education. The Lycée Français de New York, one of the city’s leading French schools, charges $26,100 a year, for instance.
The French American Charter School accepts students from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade. It plans to add a grade each year, eventually becoming an International Baccalaureate diploma school for 11th and 12th graders. The baccalaureate, offered at other French schools in New York, resembles advanced placement courses.
“Our biggest challenge is being small, having diversity and managing it,” said Zaglauer. The school’s student body is 45.1 percent black, 52.8 percent Hispanic, 0.7 percent white and 1.4 percent Asian, according to the Department of Education.
Thomas Bretz, a lifelong New Yorker, has sent his daughter Amber to the school since its inception. She is now in second grade. “We don’t come from a French-speaking background and I thought it important for my daughter to learn a second language,” he said, adding that students become “truly fluent not only with the language, but also the culture.”
The French American school cultivates appreciation for Francophone heritage, working with the French Embassy to incorporate a language heritage program. Students take 10 hours a week of heritage studies.
“The program has the double objective of teaching the language and teaching the culture,” said Benôit le Devedec, coordinator of the program at the French Consulate. It looks at the culture and history of the entire French-speaking world, not just the history of France. The aim, he said, is for students to see that “French is an asset for you in the United States.”
The school also works with French Canadian communities and has partnered with a school in the Gaspésie region of Quebec. Yaël Gacougnolle’s fourth graders write monthly letters to Quebec students the same age and the two classes conduct Skype video-chats in French. That allows students “to speak French with different French speaking people,” said Gacougnolle, who hopes to organize a trip to Quebec next year to visit the partner school.
The school has bolstered the local French-speaking community. Fabienne Lecole, senior vice president at Corcoran Group Real Estate, said it has attracted French speakers to Harlem.
“This area reminds me of certain areas in Paris,” Boncompain said. “You hear French all the time on the streets.”