Two dual-language French-English classes are set to open next August at Whitney Young Elementary, a public school in Louisville, Kentucky. The school sees the classes as a chance to help its underprivileged students.
The dual-language French-English immersion program was approved in a four-to-one vote by the parent-teacher council at Whitney Young Elementary School on February 27, 2018. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for our students and our school,” says Erica Lawrence, the principal. The passionate Francophile studied in Montpellier and Paris, and was the first one to put forward the idea for the program.
Two new kindergarten classes will be opening at the start of the next school year, and will welcome 45 students between them. Two additional classes will then be added to every grade each following year. In line with the immersive learning model chosen, known as the “50/50” model, each class will be led by two teachers. A native English-speaker will give classes in language arts and social sciences for half the day, and a native French-speaker will then teach math and science for the second half.
This model has already been rolled out in Pasadena, Salt Lake City, Scottsdale, and New York, and has proven to be very efficient. “French is the language of diplomacy and the arts,” says Erica Lawrence. “But French can also be a powerful learning tool. Dual-language teaching helps children to develop a vast range of cognitive abilities such as reading and problem solving.”
A Helping Hand for Minority Children
Erica Lawrence is also hoping the bilingual program will have a positive impact on her school. The establishment is located in a formerly segregated district in the west of Louisville, and receives state funding for assisting at-risk students in danger of dropping out of the school system. A quarter of students do not speak English at home. Some 95% are from ethnic minority backgrounds, and the same percentage are entitled to reduced-price school lunches.
According to Principal Lawrence, dual-language classes are a way to “close the achievement gap” between underprivileged children and those from more comfortable backgrounds. By way of proof, she cites a study carried out in North Carolina between 2007 and 2010. Two U.S. university professors, Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas, showed that multilingualism benefited children from ethnic minority backgrounds — particularly African-American children — and improved their rates of academic success.
A Grant from the French Embassy
“The dual-language program would be a huge boost for the school,” says Jacque Bott Van Houten. The Francophile world language specialist for public schools in Jefferson County — the school district that manages Whitney Young Elementary — advocates for the creation of bilingual programs in Louisville. She helped found the city’s first dual-language Spanish-English middle school in 2017, and even obtained a $4,000 grant from the FACE Foundation and the French embassy in the United States to help starting the French-English program.
This money will be used to train staff in the bilingual teaching method. In light of these developments, Whitney Young Elementary is now looking for a Francophone teacher certified by the state of Kentucky. Erica Lawrence plans to visit several immersion classes in Indiana, and will be taking part in a training course for heads of bilingual schools in Delaware this summer. What’s more, the French consulate in Chicago has offered help in “providing training and teaching resources, and welcoming assistants.”
Enrollments for the 2018-2019 academic year are now open, and the principal is expecting a majority of English-speaking students. Louisville only has a small French community — and Kentucky is home to just 322 French people — but does maintain ties with France. The presence of major companies (Michelin, Bel, Sodexo), an Alliance Française, and a sister city partnership with Montpellier since 1954 all foster French-American exchange. “Studying in France gave me the chance to learn another language and get to know a new culture,” says Erica Lawrence. “Now it’s my turn to offer my students the same enriching experience.”