Creating a Bilingual Revolution in Our Schools

I recently sat down with Fabrice Jaumont to discuss The Bilingual Revolution, his book about the creation of dual-language education programs in the New York City public schools. In 2006 Fabrice helped establish the first of many French-English dual-language programs, at PS 58 in Brooklyn, and later, with the assistance of parents, he helped some 20 New York City public schools set up their dual-language programs in French, Japanese, Italian, Russian and German. You can find a full list of dual-language programs (which also include Chinese, Arabic, Polish, Spanish, Haitian-Creole and Hebrew) in NYC public schools on the NYC Department of Education website.  In his book, Fabrice recounts how parents, school administrators and others came together to create these programs. He also discusses programs that did not succeed, and in conclusion, offers a step-by-step roadmap that parents can follow to create dual-language programs in their schools. Having spent my career in international business, I’ve long admired Fabrice’s enthusiasm and dedication, and am thrilled that he published this book. I found The Bilingual Revolution to be practical and candid: it is honest both about what does work – and what doesn’t, which makes this book valuable indeed. Here’s our interview (edited).

Liz Daly with Fabrice Jaumont and his book at the Invisible Dog, Sept 8, 2017

Editor’s Note: We use dual-language and bilingual interchangeably, but we’re talking about programs that are taught in two languages.

Liz Daly (LD): Let’s talk about you for a minute – you’re a dad, but you got into bilingual education before you had children.

Fabrice Jaumont (FJ): I was teaching French at Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland) as a teaching assistant. Then I became the linguistic liaison for the French Consulate in Boston where I worked for about a year and a half. I visited many bilingual programs, and immersion programs in particular, in public schools outside Boston. Then I got a job at the private bilingual school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I became a director there, managing a rigorous bilingual international program. The families understood how the program could provide life-long skills to their children. Like them, I was convinced of the incredible benefits of bilingualism.

LD: And you began working with the NYC public schools in…

FJ: Around 2005. I got here [NYC] in 2001 but I started meeting parents around 2004, 2005. That’s when I created this program for French heritage language children coming from Africa and the Caribbean. I worked with Jane Ross, who’s an educator and philanthropist. She had this idea that we should offer these high school students an advanced language course so that they could keep their French language fluency. Then they would become better learners of English and therefore integrate faster, finish school, get credit for college and make an asset of their French. That’s how I got into public schools in the Bronx and in Brooklyn.

At around the same time I met a few French mothers from Brooklyn, who were looking for bilingual programs in public schools like the ones in private schools. We got started, organizing panels, having discussions, meeting the DOE (Department of Education) and understanding the legal framework of our project.

New York City has this mandate for English language learners that says if you had 12 students entering kindergarten who are considered English language learners, then the school has to provide dual-language programs. It was working for Spanish, and maybe a few other languages… We decided to present our case to a school principal. If you could demonstrate that there were enough families in the school zone who were interested, with kids speaking a specific language at home and other kids wanting to speak that language, then the principal would sometimes say “yes.” That’s how we started with PS 58 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Then there was PS 125 in Harlem, there was MS 22, a middle school in the Bronx, and all of a sudden the media started talking about this. Then people were moving near the schools or opening their own, and that’s what got the ball rolling.

LD: When I was growing up, I went to school with kids who didn’t speak any English, and they just got thrown into the classroom and would have to sink or swim. There was also a stigma around not speaking English, but today a lot of that has changed.

FJ: The principal at PS 58, Giselle McGee, spoke French when she was a kid: her mother is French and her dad is American. Giselle spoke French up to the age of 5, and when she went to school, there were no dual-language programs. After the first day of school, she came home and told her mother, “I don’t want to speak French, all my friends speak English.”   And she completely lost her French. So can you imagine how she felt when those enterprising mothers knocked on her door and asked if she would consider opening a French after school program. Within half an hour the conversation had switched to “Would you open a French dual-language program by September?” – which she did.

LD: Within the French community, there’s also been tremendous growth – I don’t know what the numbers are – but I live near Carroll Gardens, where the French population has exploded over the last 15 years. It’s a middle class community – and that’s an important component – but it’s a community that’s come here with the idea of not staying forever, and that still maintains very strong ties back home.

FJ: They were not immigrants in the classical sense. Each community has its own model.

There is a class component. [Take] the African francophone community in the Bronx. There are actually more French speakers in the Bronx than anywhere else, but no one sees them: they might be here illegally, or they speak three or four languages but their official one is not French, or they work three jobs and don’t have time to get involved. Different socio-economic factors can make it hard to create programs, [but] these are the situations where those programs would have the most impact. You need to have community engagement and parent involvement but also an open door, a principal and school staff who understand where these families come from, and who pay attention to the small requests these families may make.

LD: Are you seeing any change in the attitudes of school administrators and teachers towards bilingualism? Are they more aware of how it can benefit the kids?

FJ: In the younger principals, yes. Unless you have those rare monolingual school leaders who really understand bilingual education or those who come from that bilingual background – they know, they went through the whole thing. This is changing across the US: states like Utah, Delaware, North Carolina, Georgia are investing massively in bilingual education. They see the benefits not just for the community, but for the economy. They want their state to be economically viable 20 years from now and their workforce to be competitive.

In New York City the DOE has this mandate that forces the City to serve English language learners, and that’s where the Federal money comes in. In fact we have other families: we have English language learners, we have heritage language families like my kids, where families want to sustain the home language and they need the schools to do that, and the third group is the English-speaking families who want to acquire a second language or a third one. These are the three groups that I usually meet, who start to form the coalition.

LD: I think that for parents who come from countries where things are done from the top down, you need to teach them that they can do things here, and that they should do these things. If they’ve never had the experience of going to a school and saying, “This is what we want”, then it will be very hard for them to do that.

FJ: In the French community, these mothers were not used to being accepted in the school [in France], but they quickly understood that here it was possible. And with the help of American mothers they started approaching the schools and asking for things. With Giselle, there’s a funny story. [The school is in] Carroll Gardens, an old Italian neighborhood. A few years after the French program opened, some of the Italian parents approached Giselle and asked her why she hadn’t created an Italian dual-language program. And she said it was because no one had asked her. So you have to ask.

[There’s also] the Italian school principal… At a meeting at the Italian Consulate, I was explaining how the French did it, how the Japanese did it, the Russians … and this man said to me, “No offense, but if the French did it, then the Italians will.” He had been a school principal in Bensonhurst, the Italian part of Brooklyn, and he never thought such a program could be created. And the next year, he found a primary school principal who was willing to do it and [then you had] the first Italian dual-language program. That’s what people need to understand – yes, you can ask.

LD: In your book you talk about programs in primary school, even in middle school, but then they seem to stop…

FJ: It’s starting to change – Utah is thinking Kindergarten to College; but here and in a lot of other places you see [many programs] in elementary school, then in middle school it starts to go down, and in high school, nothing, with the exception of one or two. I visited the High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies in Chinatown, they’re now #9 or #10 in the US in terms of academic outcomes, and they’re really a model for high schools. And the school you visited in Brooklyn, the Boerum Hill School for International Studies, I think in a few years from now it will be a model – there are now hundreds of applicants trying to get in. In high school, we’re seeing the beginning of a change, with children in the 9th and 10th grades wanting to take this all the way to the International Baccalaureate (IB) and dual-language IB. Which I think is unique in the public schools in the US, as this is an advanced IB in two languages. You have that in private schools. So now NY1 has featured the school, showing how it has created socio-economic and racial balance in the three years since it was started. And I like to see that it’s now named best middle school in Brooklyn by Inside School. It’s funny how you can transform a school, a community and a way to look at a dual-language program.

LD: So what do you need to keep the revolution going?

FJ:   I want to see this approach everywhere – it can change a city, it could change a country… That’s why I wrote the book. I thought, now it’s on paper, it’s a recipe, maybe not an ideal one, but one that’s been tested and proven, and here’s a vision of mine. So try it. I hope I get that across and give parents the desire to do it. That’s what I think is needed. They’ll do it for their children – their motivation is strong. With that they can transform their school, they can be very active in that process, so that is the best thing I hope for. In Washington D.C., they’re applying this book to the letter. When I was there a few weeks ago, they took me to all eight wards. We sat in playgrounds, in people’s homes, in restaurants, chatting, the way revolutions are done, on the ground. In Boston, where I was last week, Massachusetts has just announced that it is removing its ban on bilingual education in the public schools.   So I met with the person in charge of world languages for the Boston public schools and she said, “This book is coming at the right time, this is something we’re thinking about now, we need these programs”.

LD: So when you were working in Boston they had a ban on dual-language programs?

FJ: There were three states: Arizona, California and Massachusetts that had bans since the end of the 1990’s on bilingual programs in the public schools. This was bilingual education that served immigrants. This didn’t affect the private school where I taught – the parents wanted their kids to be bilingual. This didn’t affect the immersion programs either, because they were doing foreign language immersion and that was not considered bilingual. Now they want to change the law, the same way California did. Apparently Los Angeles is now creating dual-language programs in French and other languages. And in the last few years, they’ve been creating these programs in Texas. I went there three years ago to give a talk, and they’ve created the first full school French immersion program in Houston.  In Austin there’s a group of parents trying to do this , in Dallas… I see it happening everywhere… Burlington, Vermont, I’m going there next month… they also thought that they needed to change one of their schools into a dual language school, so that’s how I got involved.

I don’t know if I have enough juice to write another book, but I want to write one on different cities, featuring these initiatives, because I think it’s so fascinating.

LD: I’m noticing an uptick in the number of Europeans coming to New York – I’m hearing more conversations in German and Eastern European languages than I did 5 or 10 years ago.

FJ: I live in Greenpoint, and right across from my apartment is PS 34, which for years and years and years welcomed Polish families, but no one asked for a Polish dual-language program – they had Saturday language programs. About 2 or 3 years ago, a group of mothers in the park heard about the French program at PS 110 and the Japanese program at PS 147, and they started to think, Why don’t we do the same. So they got together, spoke to the principal and the superintendent (who was of Polish heritage). Now, for the first time, Greenpoint has a Polish dual-language program, the same way Bensonhurst has an Italian dual-language program. The Germans are getting there, but it’s harder for them. The German expats have a tendency to put their kids in private (German) schools when they seek to sustain the home language- it takes a leap of faith for them to put their kids in public schools.

LD: Well even for the French, it took a leap of faith to put their kids in the public schools. I think some of what you’re seeing is what we discussed before, a change in the mentality of the new immigrants, who want to keep that connection to home. I think it’s also because now people are seeing successful dual-language programs, and the light bulb goes on. That’s sometimes what you need – that one example. And let’s face it, the NYC public school system is a bureaucracy, and a very big one, so I think for many people it’s daunting to even think about tackling that.

FJ: I’m glad to see that it’s happening and I’m glad to see more and more communities wanting to do this. I’ll meet with a group of Korean parents in Brooklyn next month – they want to preserve their language and culture. When I was approached about a Japanese program, it was by a mixed group of Asian mothers: 2 Japanese, 1 Korean, 1 Chinese, and 1 Taiwanese. For some it was about maintaining their language; for others, it was about learning another language that was Asian. And they took this idea to a school whose students were predominantly Latino. But they were able to convince Principal Sandie Noyola, and now there are kids of Hispanic background in the Japanese dual-language program as well as kids of other Asian backgrounds – slowly the Japanese are looking at this school as an option, even those who are thinking of going back to Japan. The Japanese First Lady visited the school, and gave them a grant for around $30,000. The Japan Society is involved, The Japan Foundation is involved – it’s interesting to see it come together.

LD: You’re trying to translate your book into other languages – tell me about that.

FJ: I wanted to translate it at least into the 9 language groups in the book: I did the French, and I have found translators for Arabic, Chinese Italian, German, Japanese, Polish, Russian and Spanish. I’m reaching out to foundations, governments and cultural institutions, trying to find funders. I’m creating a website, in different languages, to go with the book, as a tool for communities to set up their own programs. And eventually I’d like to get the book translated into other languages.

LD: Fabrice, I do think you arrived in New York at the perfect time, and people were ready for the bilingual revolution. Aux barricades!

You can find more information about Fabrice Jaumont’s book, The Bilingual Revolution here



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