Bilingual Programs Pushing for Space in New York City

One of the NYFACS murals of previous kindergarten classes. Photo: Grace Jamieson for La Jeune Politique

One of the NYFACS murals of previous kindergarten classes.
Photo: Grace Jamieson for La Jeune Politique

Foreign-language schools are fighting a constant battle on the terrain of New York City education. New York City’s schools are some of the most diverse in the nation, serving students from a myriad of backgrounds speaking dozens of native languages. There are over 140,000 English-Language Learners (ELL) students whose first language is not English and whose English has not been deemed proficient.

Yet resources to serve this diverse body of students are stretched thin. Recently, the New York French American Charter School (NYFACS) was asked to cap its program at fifth grade, unable to welcome the sixth grade class the school was hoping to incorporate. The city’s Department of Education cited a lack of space as the primary reason for the school’s downsizing, which was necessary for NYFACS to renew its charter for the current school year. Like public schools, charter schools receive a large sum of funding from the Department of Education, and must comply with nearly all of the city’s standardizations.

The chairman of NYFACS’s Board of Trustees, Richard Ortoli, promises that this downsize is only a “pause” in the school’s long-term expansion. The school hopes to eventually be able to expand to a full K-12 institution, in order to serve the large francophone population in its immigrant-heavy Harlem neighborhood. The charter school, which is the only of its kind, offers a free, bilingual French-English education to its students. Admissions are determined by lottery, with preference given to students in the local community, School District 3. Ortoli hopes that within “one or two years” they can find another place that can welcome all grades kindergarten through 12, according to an interview with French Morning.

NYFACS is not the only school stressed for space in New York City. The New York City Department of Education is the largest district in the country, consisting of over 1,800 schools that serve over 1.1 million students. With such a large volume of students crammed into just under 469 square miles, space is at a premium. Many schools in the city are co-located, meaning that more than one school is fit into a single building, with the individual institutions often divided by floor or hallway. The co-location of charter schools—who typically are required to find and fund their own buildings—has been a hotly contested issue over the 2013-2014 school year.

Amongst the difficulties of funding a public French-English education, francophones in the city have turned to other means to enrich their children’s bilingual education. One such program is the Green Bean Day Care, a preschool service run out of the home of Monica Madalinski, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Serving local, organic snacks provided by her mother’s kitchen, Madalinski’s preschool does what any other preschool does—they play, read, sing, and paint. The only difference is that they perform these simple activities in both French and English.

Out of the sixteen children enrolled in the program, Madalinski also told French Morning that “the majority are French,” showing the parents’ desire to nurture a child’s bilingual education outside the home. One mother of the program commented on how impressed she was on the young kids’ ability to pick up the second language, stressing the need for bilingual education at an early age.

The Green Bean Day Care is launching itself into a politically volatile world of pre-primary education. With a push for “universal Pre-Kindergarten” serving as a prominent element of current Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 2013 election campaign, what we teach our 4-year-olds is prominent in the minds of New Yorkers.

Unlike most American schools, which typically do not start teaching foreign languages until the 6th or 7th grade, schools in France start language instruction between the ages of six and eight, the equivalent of the American 1st to 3rd grade. In fact, French students must have taken courses in at least two foreign languages by the time of their graduation from lycée (high school).

NYFACS and the Brooklyn daycare are not the only bilingual French programs seeking expansion in the city. The French American Cultural Exchange (FACE), a non-profit housed within the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York, is working to “bring the benefits of bilingualism and bi-literacy to as many children as possible, including those in under-served areas in New York City,” according to their website. Its most recent efforts include the launching of the “1st Bilingual Education Fair of New York,” a program to be held on October 11, geared toward bringing together bilingual educators, parents, and experts in eight different languages.

The diversity of NYFACS shows on the school itself: the exterior walls of its current building are decorated with murals of the faces of students from graduated kindergarten classes, their heritages stretching from Lyon to Tunisia to Afghanistan.

“We want to show the diversity of students who go to NYFACS and who make our lives full of rich moments,” commented one of the kindergarten teachers, Laetitia Vanni. It is these students whose bilingual education is being cut short by the restriction of the school’s expansion. NYFACS mission is to prepare their students for the International Baccalaureate (IB) program and Regency exam—but with instruction ending with the fifth grade, they have their work cut out for them.

With space and instructional time at a premium, New York’s French schools will have to push for resources alongside the rest of the city’s public and charter schools, in order to give a voice to those students and families interested in a French-English education.

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