The school’s founder Willy LeBihan is still surprised. “The Tampa area is going through an incredible economic boom and attracting increasing numbers of Francophones, but the nearest French schools are in Atlanta, Miami, and New Orleans!” he says. In an effort to remedy the situation, the Frenchman and his American wife Elizabeth raised two million dollars and renovated a former daycare center in St. Petersburg, the region’s second largest city.
This is not the first dual-language immersion school the couple has founded. In 2002 they opened the Ecole Française du Maine in South Freeport, north of Portland. The school teaches 70 children, and the first students in the program have now left to study at McGill University in Montreal, at Harvard, and at MIT. Willy and Elizabeth chose West Florida for their second school. The region offers a number of advantages, including some 30 leading French businesses and a major community of expats employed by the Cancer Research Center and Institute and the NATO base. “These people are exactly who we are catering for,” says the school’s founder.
Ten students between the ages of 4 and 8 are already signed up, and dozens of other families have shown an interest. A couple of French doctors posted to Johns Hopkins Hospital intend to enroll their four children. Willy expects several children to join the school during the year, and hopes there will be between 70 and 100 students by September 2019. “We already had the same experience in Maine. There were just 12 students enrolled when we first opened!”
Books and Pens Imported from France
Painters are now at work on the building housing the future French-American School of Tampa Bay. It is located halfway between the business district, the beaches, and the residential neighborhoods, right next to the Interstate 275 that runs around the bay. Seven classrooms have been created, and climbing frames under the palm trees in the school yard are shaped like a pirate ship in a nod to the region’s heritage.
The United States ends at the door to the establishment. “When you arrive in our school, you are in France. It is a totally immersive experience.” And this approach is applied right down to the smallest details. The manuals were bought from Cufay – a bookstore specialized in teaching materials in Abbeville, Picardy – and the school equipment is imported from France. “The pencils and pens sold in the United States are not adapted to children’s small hands,” says Willy LeBihan, who has taught in several schools in Maine. “Cursive writing is easier to learn with a thick, triangular-shaped pencil, and French-ruled Seyès paper helps students form the letters. This is the paper used in all French schools.”
Three teachers on leave from the French Ministry for Education have been recruited. Each will work in pairs with a French assistant. Until fifth grade, students will learn French in the same way they learned their native language, by listening and repeating what they hear. For the middle school and high school classes set to open in the future, students will take remote classes provided by the French National Center for Distance Education, supervised by a teacher.
“An Opportunity to Learn a New Language”
The French-American School of Tampa Bay is targeting expat Francophone families by offering a French immersion program. But it is also appealing to members of the international community “who have not found options to suit them in the U.S. school system,” and monolingual Americans looking to give their children an opportunity to learn a new language.
The objective is for students to be able to write in both French and English at the end of elementary school. But this level of excellence comes at a price. Expect to pay 11,500 dollars per year to enroll a child in the first year of preschool, and 13,500 dollars a year from first grade through fifth grade. The fees are similar to those at the French-American International School of Boca Raton and the French-American School of Miami.
The French-American School of Tampa Bay is hoping to receive its certification from the French Ministry for Education by September 2019. “A school of this caliber is a major economic asset for the region,” says Willy LeBihan. “Now that a French school has opened, investors have even more reasons to come to Tampa.”