The Boom in Dual-Language Classes in New York (1/3): The Story of Giselle McGee

In this three-part series on bilingualism, Fabrice Jaumont, educator and author of The Bilingual Revolution: The Future of Education is in Two Languages, looks back over the creation of the first French-English dual-language classes in New York.
© Sylvie Serprix

In April 2006, three determined mothers burst into the office of Giselle Gault-McGee, the principal of the P.S. 58 elementary school in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. They had come to persuade her that an after-school French program should be introduced at the school. Just like Catherine Poisson, Anne-Laure Fayard, and Mary-Powel Thomas, many students’ parents in the area were also looking for ways to keep up their children’s French up outside of the home. But few thought their discussions would lead to the creation of the first French-English dual-language program in a New York City public school in 2007.

Today there are ten public French dual-language programs in New York and some 20 private schools that accompany students from daycare to the end of high school. But bilingualism has not always been popular with schools or families.

Giselle Gault-McGee spoke perfect French until the age of five. She was originally from Staten Island, but her mother was born in Toulouse and her grandparents were from Northern France. In Kindergarten she told her mother she was no longer speaking French because none of her classmates knew the language. This was in 1960. Recent immigrants sought to integrate as quickly as possible instead of preserving their culture, and elementary schools did not yet offer dual-language immersion programs. Children of immigrant parents often chose to abandon their native languages to focus on English, and this was how Giselle Gault-McGee stopped speaking French. Hers is one of many similar stories in the United States at the time.

Drawing inspiration from this experience, Giselle Gault-McGee – who went on to become the principal of an elementary school in Carroll Gardens – founded a French dual-language program in her school. Her decision paved the way for other similar initiatives. Students’ parents in Brooklyn and other neighborhoods across the city began to organize. They contacted their children’s schools and suggested the creation of dual-language classes in their communities. The Francophone media covered their efforts and support was provided by local actors such as the FACE Foundation, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, and Education en Français à New York (EFNY), a not-for-profit organization whose objective is to offer extra-curricular activities and bilingual programs in public schools across the city. In a very short space of time, the number of dual-language classes grew all over New York before beginning to take hold in other American cities.

Today there are dual-language programs in public schools in states such as New York, California, Kentucky, Texas, Arizona, and Utah. Teachers and researchers both see the program founded at the P.S. 58 school in Brooklyn as a model for dual-language education in the 21st century as it offers a high-quality program open to all students regardless of origin, linguistic background, and socio-economic context.

In recognition of her commitment to promoting bilingualism, Giselle Gault-McGee received the insignia of the Order of Academic Palms in 2009. The principal passed away the day before Christmas in 2017, but there is no doubt that thousands of children in the United States will grow up speaking French thanks to her work!

A conference on multilingualism will be held on Saturday, October 6, 2018, from 9 am to 1 pm at the Assemblée Nationale in Paris. Fabrice Jaumont will be speaking on the role of parents in the creation of dual-language programs.