Thursday, June 17, 2010

Maine French School Poised to Win Rare Accreditation from France

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network
06/16/2010 Reported By: Tom Porter

Click here to listen.

Less than two miles from Route 1 in downtown Freeport is a little piece of France. The French School of Maine, or L'Ecole Française du Maine, is the state's only French immersion school, where children from pre-school to grade seven are taught in French from day one. Tomorrow's a big day for the school -- and not just because it's graduation. The 'Ecole' is to receive full accreditation from the French government -- an honor only given to two other schools in New England.
That's according to director Beth Lebihan, a native Mainer who co-founded the school with her French husband Willy, both of whom are experienced educators. "This is our eighth operating year of the school. We originally opened the school in Winthrop, where we had 12 students, and five years ago we moved down to the Freeport area, and we have now 70 students enrolled."

As the description suggests, children learn to speak French like a native by being immersed in the language and culture of France.

Beth Lebihan: Everything is French. People think it's just a school where they learn French, that's not right. They're learning math, and science and history. They're learning it all, they're just learning it all in French. French is the language of instruction.

Tom Porter: So as soon as they walk through those doors in the morning, no more English.

BL: Exactly, and we try to make it culturally as authentic as we can. We bring all of the materials from France, all of the books, even the paper -- in France the paper has lines both vertically and horizontally -- and so we have all the paper, the 'stiloplumes,' everything as if they were a student in France. When sit down at their table, or when they enter the classroom, it's like walking into France."

This group of kindergarten and first grade children are unknowingly sharpening their French-speaking skills with a game of 20 questions. First grader Alexis Eckert, says speaking French is now easy.

Alexis Eckert: We were playing a game where we have to find out what a person brought to show people.

Tom Porter: How do you find that out?

AE: You guess -- in French.

TP: Is that difficult for you to do?

AE: Not really.

Valerie LeGenti -- originally from Brittany in France -- is outside supervising a kindergardeners' sack race. She's one of seven native French speakers on the faculty and teaches the school's younger children. The first few months, she says, can be confusing for new arrivals, as their young brains struggle to make sense of two different languages.

Valerie LeGenti: Especially at the beginning of the year and then they get used to it, and then they catch it, and now it's the end of the year and we only speak French.

Tom Porter: So you're probably the teacher that's teaching them when they make that click in their head and they go from being confused to being bi-lingual. How does that feel?

VL: It feels amazing. Sometimes we see just in one week they click. They can begin to speak to us in French, and they were speaking to us in English one week before. It's amazing, They are sponge!

"Developmentally, children in the pre-school age are picking up an average of 200 words a day," says school director Beth Lebihan. Lebihan says the earlier a child is exposed to another language the better. Indeed, the French School of Maine takes kids as young as a two -- as long as they're potty-trained.

"Their little minds are hearing words and sorting through them and trying then to place them and figure out what they mean and try them out. So that's really what they're doing just naturally and they're not interested in sorting out what language it's supposed to be, they're little sponges and it really works quite magically."

"I didn't understand that well, but after a couple of months I really enjoyed because I had new friends and stuff," says fourth-grader Eva Then, who is coming to the end of her second year at the school.

Eva Then: I would understand French like a couple of months later, and then I was able to speak and not be able to have to not know the words that well.

TP: And now if you want to suddenly just start talking in French you can do it without thinking about it?

ET: Yeah I guess.

All the programs taught by the school, follow French ministry of education directives. After a rigorous three-year inspection process, the French government is poised to recognize this commitment by awarding the school full academic accreditation -- something only given to 46 other schools in all of the U.S. and Canada.