French Immersion Classes Arrive in Alaska!

The first two dual-language French-English classes in Alaska will be launched next August at O’Malley Elementary School, a public school in Anchorage. Despite being isolated, this American state is attracting an increasingly large international population.
Anchorage, Alaska.

Alaska is no stranger to bilingualism. After all, the state’s first dual-language program is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year! Japan was one of Alaska’s major commercial and strategic allies during the Cold War, and a Japanese-English immersion class was opened in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, in 1989. The model took off, and today the city has seven dual-language programs including two in Spanish and one in the indigenous Yupik language.

The French-English program will be the eighth of its kind in Anchorage. Two kindergarten classes will be launched for the start of the academic year at O’Malley Elementary School in a residential suburb south of the city. The school was long under-enrolled and threatened with closure. A survey also revealed that 250 students living in the district attended different schools. In the majority of cases, parents preferred to send their children to an establishment offering a bilingual program in Chinese or German.

Uniting a Community Around the School

“The parents, who are very involved in the education of their children, are looking for something different than what the traditional elementary school has to offer,” says Brandon Locke, director of world languages and immersion programs at the Anchorage School District. “A bilingual class helps to attract new families to the neighborhood and unite a community of parents around the school,” says Anne Adasiak-Andrew, former a French teacher and the president of the French Language Advocates Anchorage association, which campaigned for the creation of a dual-language program. “You could say that our class saved the school!”

The idea of a French-English program in Anchorage was first developed in 2006. Parents supported the initiative and had even found an American publishing house that released school books in French, but there was a lack of funding. Two grants of 10,000 dollars, one from the FACE foundation and another from the Alaska Community Foundation, were enough to finance the program, which was then approved by the Anchorage education authorities in November 2018.

Two Classes of 27 Students

A total of 122 students applied for the program, and 54 successful candidates in two classes will be starting at the end of August. Most of them do not speak French at home. Oil, mining, fishing, the commercial port, the military base, and the FedEx and UPS distribution centers are some of the state’s biggest industries, and draw a large international population to Anchorage. “I have been contacted by several Franco-American families, as well as Canadians, Koreans, and Mexicans,” says Anne Adasiak-Andrew. “I also received an email from a French couple working for an oil company in South Korea, who were soon being transferred to Alaska!”

Courtney and Namory Bagayoko are a couple of doctors who moved in Alaska in August 2017. She grew up in California, and he was born in Louisiana to a Malian father. Their two children attend the dual-language Spanish-English pre-school, but will be joining the French-English immersion program next year to be able to speak with their Francophone grandfather.

Thinking Long-Term

“When we arrived, there was a program for every strategic language except French,” says Courtney Bagayoko, who has joined the French Language Advocates Anchorage association and helped organize a wine and cheese tasting night to raise money. “Two classes will be opened in August, but we have to keep up our efforts to be able to buy equipment for future students.”

The Anchorage School District is now looking for a Francophone teaching assistant and a teacher capable of teaching science and social studies in French. Brandon Locke, director of world languages and immersion programs, is tasked with interviewing the candidates. “It can be hard to convince people to move to Alaska,” he says. It seems certain clichés die hard. “People think we live in igloos, and are surprised to learn we have so many dual-language programs!”