Over 30 years of French immersion at École Kenwood
Amye R. Sukapdjo, Kindergarten Teacher, École Kenwood French Immersion
In the 1980s, the magnet school movement hit its stride. Districts across the nation began committing to alternative options ranging from math and science to the creative arts and even to world languages. Some interesting dates to note include:
1973: Cincinnati, OH opened up a Creative Arts Magnet Program elementary foreign language schools
1974: Montgomery County, MD opened up a French Immersion Magnet Program
1976: Minneapolis, MN opened up its first Spanish Immersion Program
1977: Montgomery County, MD opened up a Spanish Immersion Program
1985: Federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program authorized, providing grants to magnet schools
1987: Columbus, OH opened up one Spanish and one French (École Kenwood) full immersion elementary schools
1987: Kansas City, MO opened up ten K-12 immersion schools in French, Spanish, and German
Over the past four decades, through budget cuts, demographic changes, shifts in educational philosophies and teacher licensure requirements, along with the arrival of the age of testing and accountability, some French programs were discontinued or were reinvented as charter schools. Yet one full-immersion elementary program has persisted: École Kenwood French Immersion K- 6.
The beginning was a frenzy of hard work. In 1985, Columbus City Schools was looking to add foreign language elementary options. Original discussions considered K-5 Spanish and K-5 Japanese schools. In the end, the full-immersion programs offered to the community would be in French and Spanish. Once the languages were selected, the next challenge was staffing those schools. Hiring staff for the Spanish immersion school was easier, as recruiting from Spanish- speaking communities throughout the U.S. seemed to provide native and near-native speakers who had American school system experience, American teacher training, and valid State teaching licenses. For École Kenwood, however, it was more difficult to find elementary certified teachers who were native or near-native French speakers. A serendipitous source was the Belgian consulate in Louisiana that introduced Ohio administrators to a group of Belgian elementary teachers who were finishing a French-language teaching experience in the U.S. The Kansas City (MO) schools were also planning on opening a French-immersion school, and were courting the same group of native speakers. Five Belgians agreed to come to Columbus, Ohio to help open École Kenwood in its inaugural year of 1987-1988, and were assisted in procuring work visas. The full-immersion program used the following language model: Kindergarten and first grade were 100% taught in French, second grade used a 80% French/20% English; third grade used a 70/30 model; fourth grade a 60/40; and fifth grade a 50/50 model.
As word of this public school option spread through the community, École Kenwood grew and thrived. Teachers, administrators, and parents worked tirelessly and diligently together to ensure that the program succeeded. The community had to learn what a French immersion program sounded like and how it functioned. Administrators had to explain to stakeholders the benefits of such a program, and then had to work hard to staff the program. Teachers had to translate and create materials that weren’t readily available in French in the U.S., or which were too expensive to purchase from abroad. Parents who might not have ever studied a global language had to come together to volunteer, to fundraise, and to support the school in any manner possible. As a result of these tremendous efforts, which were given wholeheartedly with hopeful faith of a bright future through a bilingual education, this program has endured. In 2017, the program was given the Label FrancEducation, a seal of quality awarded by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thus giving it official international accreditation. With the end of the 2018-2019 school year, the last of the original five Belgians retired. The torch has been passed.
École Kenwood is now in its 32nd year and with a long waitlist for admission, it is still considered a desirable program. As of the 2020-21 academic year, an articulated language program through middle and high school for the district’s French (and Spanish) immersion students will begin so that students will be able to continue their linguistic development in the content areas. As dual immersion programs are sprouting around the country, which is in itself a clear testament to the belief in the benefits of bilingual education, École Kenwood is one of the few full immersion programs in the U.S. with decades of knowhow. The future is bright for continuing instruction en français.