Nearly all the 65 dual-language programs in the New York City public
schools are conducted in Spanish and Chinese, languages that are
considered practical tools for future success.
So far, French has
not fit into that equation.
But next month, the first French-English dual-language programs
will begin at three schools in the city: Public School 125 on the
Upper West Side, P.S. 58 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and
Intermediate School 22 in Harlem. They are the result of two years
of lobbying from the French Embassy and a group of parents
determined to promote the language in the public schools.
Dual-language programs have operated for more than 15 years,
officials at the city’s Department of Education said. The inclusion
of French brings the total number of languages in the program to
five, including Spanish, Chinese, and last year’s addition of
Haitian-Creole and Russian.
“There is a growing recognition that in our globalized society,
speaking two or more languages is quite advantageous,” Lindsey Harr,
a department spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail message. She added, “We
open new dual-language programs partially in response to community
interest and demand.”
The department’s efforts to open an Arabic-English school, the
Khalil Gibran International Academy, in the Boerum Hill section of
Brooklyn this year met with problems from its inception; just weeks
away from the opening, its founding principal resigned under
Although the idea of a French language program never caused any
uproar, selling it to the department, with all its bureaucracy, was
no easy task, some supporters of the program said. And, they added,
it was often even harder to persuade other parents that French was
useful for more than watching art films or reading a wine list.
“Parents didn’t really understand,” said Polly Desjarlais, a
museum interpreter whose 5-year-old son, George, will enter a
French-English kindergarten at P.S. 58. “Why French? I kept hearing
that over and over again, from people at the playground. Why not
Spanish, why not Italian, since this is a historically Italian
neighborhood? Why not something practical that could be used?”
The French Embassy offered about $20,000 in annual financing to
each school that is beginning a program this fall, and raised more
money from private donors.
“It was very hard to get anything started, probably because
people have the wrong perceptions,” said Fabrice Jaumont, the
education attaché for the French Embassy in New York. “I think it’s
strange that people just focus on Chinese or Spanish when French is
spoken in 50 countries.”
Anne-Laure Fayard, a professor at Polytechnic University in
Brooklyn, said she was not surprised by the lack of French programs
when she moved to New York. She even detected some anti-French bias
“I know the stories about ‘freedom fries’ and everything, so I
didn’t expect that everyone wants to learn French,” she said.
But some parents said that after asking around, they discovered a
huge demand. According to data from Éducation Française à New York,
a group founded in 2005 to promote the French language in the city’s
schools, more than 31,000 children in New York City speak French at
Until now, their options were limited to private schools, like
the Lycée Français on the Upper East Side, which is not only
exclusive, but also charges tuition of more than $18,000 a year for
elementary school students.
Florence Nash, who helped found the education group, said there
was an underserved population of French speakers in the city who
could not afford private school and whose children had no way of
continuing their language education in the public schools. There
were the families from European countries, including Belgium,
Switzerland and France, as well as the more recent waves of
immigrants from Morocco, Syria and Lebanon, many of whom had
backgrounds in French.
But Ms. Nash, who is from France, said French people were not
predisposed to create their own programs, especially within the
usually intractable public school system.
“It’s a scandal that there hasn’t been anything in French before,
because the population is there,” said Ms. Nash, who lives in
Stuyvesant Town with her husband, daughter and son. “But the French,
they are too embarrassed to do anything. They don’t have the
American mentality of ‘do it yourself.’ ”
At P.S. 125 and P.S. 58, the programs will begin as a single
kindergarten class, then expand by one grade every year. At I.S. 22,
the classes will begin as Grades 5 and 6.
French dual-language programs have taken hold in public schools
in Chicago, Miami, Boston and Washington, said Mr. Jaumont, who
spends much of his time lobbying school administrators across the
country to push French programs. “We’re launching this new campaign
called the World Speaks French, showing that French is spoken
everywhere, internationally,” he said. “Maybe that would be seducing
for American principals.”