San Diego French-American School: A Local Blend of Culture and Curriculumby Emily Gould January 2, 2019
Nestled in the hills of suburban La Jolla is a quaint, brightly colored school whose dedication to ensuring the bilingualism of its students is as vibrant as its buildings. I’m greeted with an exuberant “bonjour!” as I step through the doors into the office. Director of Enrollment Management, Isabelle Gilet, welcomes me into the San Diego French-American School (SDFAS) with a passionate enthusiasm for what the school accomplishes with its students. She and the rest of the staff members take great pride in helping the children excel in not only the French and English languages themselves, but also the rest of the curriculum – which is taught in varying degrees in both languages.
“We have students starting from age two through the 8th-grade,” explains Gilet, who are enrolled in “the fluency transition program … where they work with a specialist on language acquisition” for time proportionate to the level of fluency that they enter the school with. The goal is to have students exit the SDFAS and enter high schools with complete fluency in both languages. Which, as I saw first hand, is not an impossible task; I was awed by the way fifth grade students seamlessly transitioned between speaking in French, then to English, and back again. Even the pre-K classes flawlessly understand instructions in French, despite speaking English as a primary language. Pre-K classes are taught 90 percent in French, and 10 percent in English; by the time students reach 8th grade, the reverse is true in order to prepare them for entry into local high schools – although around six percent of students do end up attending local or foreign Baccalaureate Internationale schools.
The SDFAS is accredited by the French government, and follows both traditional French and American systems of pedagogy; the French system offers a structured and analytical approach, while the American system is more inquiry based and encourages students to think creatively in order to solve problems. Mark Rosenblum, head of school, believes these systems complement each other well as they “allow students different ways to approach their learning. Studying and learning multiple languages in and of itself leads to alternative ways of perceiving the world and expressing oneself, which in turn allows for a richer human existence.”
Foreign language immersion programs such as this one offer many cognitive benefits. With the rise of globalization, it is immeasurably helpful to be bilingual throughout one’s life. Bilingual students also show stronger skills in problem solving, required selective/divided attention and mental flexibility. Research has shown that bilingual students show these advantages over their monolingual counterparts within only two to three years of language immersion, which is why SDFAS has recently changed their policy on the entry point of students. Previously, monolingual students were only able to enroll at the school until 6th grade, but now SDFAS allows new student enrollment at any time, with any level of fluency in either language. It is, of course, better for pupils to start earlier, but the addition of the aforementioned “fluency transition program” has allowed for less fluent students to have extra attention in order to reach the level of their peers.
The school’s language immersion curriculum heavily concentrates on an active learning process. On my tour of the school, Gilet introduced me to François Trégouët of the computer science department. He showed me how the computer lab is designed to be flexible, with garage doors, movable chairs and whiteboard tabletops; the environment promotes learning in a way that is conducive to a young and adventurous mind. The computer lab also hosts several species of robots that evolve with the age of the children, becoming more complicated as the students graduate to higher levels of learning. The integration of such innovative technology promotes mathematical understanding through the art of coding, as well as collaboration and problem solving by creating puzzles via 3D printers: older students craft three-dimensional puzzles using computer-generated formulas, which are then printed and given to younger students who solve them.
A class of 5th-graders was over the moon about their teacher, Marie-Pier Goulet-Lyle, who earned her Master’s in Education and focused her thesis on “specific links that exist between reading skills and mathematical word problem performance.” She incorporates her background into the classroom in such a way that makes learning fun instead of arduous. Her students had only good things to say about her (in both French and English) and offered rave reviews of her ability to create a classroom experience that feels welcoming and encouraging by presenting curriculum in a way that is fresh and enjoyable.
Not to be outdone by the surrounding monolingual middle schools, the SDFAS campus also boasts a large grass area, complete with a track and soccer field for school-sponsored teams, as well as a colorful blacktop area where the students enjoy playing less competitive games during recess. “We don’t want the students to miss out on local traditions,” offers Gilet, “sports are a big part of American culture and it’s important for the students to experience physical education like this.”
Overall, the San Diego French American School felt like a wonderfully charming and inspiring place to attend. Not only do the teachers who interact face-to-face with students on a daily basis seem excited and enthusiastic about providing their pupils with an extraordinary learning experience, but even the more behind-the-scenes staff members share this same ideal. Head of Middle School Benedicte Brouder is the perfect example, as she shepherds the children from middle to high school, ensuring that they are able to move on to their first choice of lycée.
I was pleasantly surprised by my visit to this dual language institution, it never occurred to me that such a place existed in my own backyard (with hundreds of sister locations and hundreds of thousands of students around the world, I might add); the school was clever and unique, well manicured, and fascinatingly multi-faceted. My only objection was that I myself never attended a school like this; ah well, c’est la vie!