French Im­mer­sion School em­braces di­ver­sity, global iden­tity

Stu­dents come from all re­li­gions and cul­tures, just like na­tive speak­ers

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Front Page - An­nysa John­son

Pa­trice Nas­salang tow­ers over his young stu­dents on the stage at Mil­wau­kee French Im­mer­sion School. Pound­ing his bare feet into the boards, the Sene­galese dancer runs them through the rhyth­mic move­ments of the Men­di­any, a cel­e­bra­tory dance of West Africa.

“En bas,” Nas­salang calls in French over the sound of the thun­der­ing drum, and they swing their arms low.

“En haut,” he calls, and they reach for the sky.

African dance is a rel­a­tively new of­fer­ing at Mil­wau­kee French Im­mer­sion, one of a hand­ful of in­ter­na­tion­ally known full-im­mer­sion lan­guage schools in Mil­wau­kee Pub­lic Schools.

Cre­ated as part of a net­work of mag­net pro­grams in­tended to de­seg­re­gate

MPS, French Im­mer­sion re­mains one of the most in­te­grated schools in what is now a largely re­seg­re­gated dis­trict. Nas­salang’s class is part of a con­certed ef­fort by Prin­ci­pal Gina Bianchi to em­brace that di­ver­sity — and the re­al­ity that French is a global lan­guage spo­ken around the world, from Europe to Africa and the Caribbean to the Mid­dle East.

“Our di­ver­sity is so rich, and it’s not just racial,” said Bianchi, who took over as prin­ci­pal in fall 2013. “It’s ge­o­graphic and so­cioe­co­nomic. … And we have stu­dents who come from all dif­fer­ent re­li­gions and cul­tures.”

“The op­por­tu­nity our kids have to learn from each other is just as im­por­tant as the lan­guage.”

Mil­wau­kee French Im­mer­sion marked its 40th an­niver­sary this month with a visit from the French Con­sulate, which be­stowed on the school an in­ter­na­tional lan­guage ac­cred­i­ta­tion that brings with it a num­ber of new re­sources for stu­dents and teach­ers.

Con­sul Gen­eral Guil­laume Lacroix said he was par­tic­u­larly moved by the com­mit­ment of fam­i­lies and staff and the school’s his­tory as a ve­hi­cle for right­ing a his­toric wrong.

“I was very im­pressed . ... It is quite in­no­va­tive,” said Lacroix, who missed his evening train back to Chicago that night rather than cut short his visit.

“It was used as an in­stru­ment to break the racial di­vide,” he said. “And see­ing the alumni who send their chil­dren there ... gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion — there is some­thing very pow­er­ful there,” he said.

Im­mersed in lan­guage

Lan­guage im­mer­sion is, as it sounds, a method of teach­ing in which stu­dents re­ceive all of their lessons — lit­er­a­ture, math, ev­ery­thing — “im­mersed” in the tar­get lan­guage.

It be­gins in the ear­li­est grades, as kinder­garten teacher Dawn Bal­istreri il­lus­trated on a re­cent morn­ing.

“Compte pour madame,” she tells the class, pointer in hand as she guides them through the cal­en­dar.

And they oblige in uni­son: “Un, deux,

trois, qua­tre, cinq ...,” un­til they de­volve into a ca­coph­ony of tiny voices some­where north of “dix-neuf.”

Mil­wau­kee’s lan­guage im­mer­sion schools — in French, Ger­man and Span­ish, as well as a par­tial pro­gram in Ital­ian — draw stu­dents from across the city and sur­round­ing suburbs through open en­roll­ment.

At French Im­mer­sion, a num­ber of the chil­dren are sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents. And many of the staff are alumni who, like Bianchi, have their own chil­dren en­rolled there.

Fam­i­lies are a mix: white, black, Latino, in­ter­ra­cial and in­tercon­ti­nen­tal, some of whom speak French at home. They are drawn by the trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of learn­ing an­other lan­guage, they say, as well as for the di­ver­sity the school of­fers.

“French is the lan­guage that binds my chil­dren to their fam­ily half­way around the world,” said Nai­imah Ze­ri­ouh, who is mar­ried to a Moroc­can man and has two chil­dren in the school.

“I can’t imag­ine them be­ing at any other school,” she said. “They have friends from dif­fer­ent coun­tries, friends who are black, who are white, friends from just about any­where you can imag­ine.”

‘A rad­i­cal move’

In­tro­duced in the U.S. in the 1970s, im­mer­sion schools were mod­eled af­ter French lan­guage schools that were sweep­ing across Canada and fu­eled by re­search show­ing that stu­dents taught in the im­mer­sion model per­formed as well and of­ten bet­ter than peers in English-speak­ing schools.

The idea wasn’t en­tirely new. For­eign lan­guage in­struc­tion has been a pri­or­ity for fam­i­lies of means around the world for mil­len­nia, said Tara For­tune, im­mer­sion di­rec­tor for the Cen­ter for Ad­vanced Re­search on Lan­guage Ac­qui­si­tion at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota. But pro­vid­ing it free in pub­lic schools, she said, was a “rad­i­cal move.”

MPS was an early adopter, cre­at­ing some of the first pub­lic im­mer­sion pro­grams in the coun­try. To­day it of­fers full im­mer­sion — in Ger­man, French and Span­ish — in three ele­men­tary schools. And it re­mains one of a few districts to of­fer a mid­dle and high school op­tion at its Mil­wau­kee School of Lan­guages.

In­te­gra­tion was a key ob­jec­tive from the be­gin­ning for MPS, which launched the im­mer­sion schools and other mag­net pro­grams as a way to com­ply with a fed­eral court or­der to de­seg­re­gate.

“What was cool about Mil­wau­kee was that when it started, 40% of the pop­u­la­tion needed to be stu­dents of color,” For­tune said, though that quota was later re­scinded. “That was just an awe­some start be­cause it said we are re­ally com­mit­ted to this idea of in­te­gra­tion.”

Like many large ur­ban districts, where white fam­i­lies con­tin­ued to flee, MPS has es­sen­tially re­seg­re­gated, with many of its schools over­whelm­ingly black, white or Latino. No school mir­rors MPS’ racial makeup ex­actly — about 53% black, 26% Latino and 12% white — but French Im­mer­sion re­mains one of its most in­te­grated with its white pop­u­la­tion at about 27% and the ma­jor­ity stu­dents of color.

Em­brac­ing the mis­sion

For years, Mil­wau­kee’s lan­guage im­mer­sion pro­grams op­er­ated al­most un­der the radar, draw­ing mostly white fam­i­lies through word of mouth and earn­ing rep­u­ta­tions as some­what “elit­ist.” But as the dis­trict be­came in­creas­ingly black and brown, MPS in the in­ter­est of eq­uity has made a con­sci­en­tious ef­fort to make its higher-per­form­ing and spe­cialty pro­grams more avail­able to stu­dents of color.

It moved French Im­mer­sion from the far south­west side to its more cen­tral lo­ca­tion at West North Av­enue and North 52nd Street about 15 years ago, in part so it had room to grow. And Bianchi, as prin­ci­pal, has em­braced that mis­sion.

Dur­ing her ten­ure, the school has hired na­tive French speak­ers from Africa (men and women), adapted the cur­ricu­lum to bet­ter re­flect the global na­ture of the French lan­guage, launched a book club in which par­ents can ex­plore is­sues of race and cul­ture, and more.

Over the last decade, en­roll­ment has grown by 56% to about 614, most of that since Bianchi ar­rived. And hers is the only one of the four im­mer­sion schools to main­tain and in­crease white en­roll­ment even as its per­cent­age of black and brown stu­dents rose.

Aca­demic per­for­mance is mixed, de­pend­ing on the sub­ject. Over­all, the per­cent­age of stu­dents pro­fi­cient in English lan­guage and math — 35.4% and 18.3% in 2016-’17 — are well above the dis­trict av­er­age but be­low the state’s, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est data main­tained by the De­part­ment of Pub­lic In­struc­tion. And, as in the dis­trict and the state, wide dis­par­i­ties per­sist in achieve­ment be­tween black and white stu­dents.

Bianchi cau­tioned against read­ing too much into the data.

“Num­bers only tell one piece of a story,” said Bianchi, who noted that stu­dents are taught in French but tested in English, and that the school does not “coun­sel out” stu­dents who strug­gle.

“Stu­dents who have tra­di­tion­ally been suc­cess­ful here con­tinue to be,” she said. “Our challenge is to work with fam­i­lies to strengthen (all of) our stu­dents’ per­for­mance . ... They are only go­ing to help us get bet­ter at teach­ing.”

She said a new math cur­ricu­lum in French, its first aligned to state stan­dards, has al­ready shown progress this year, boost­ing pro­fi­ciency scores by 10 per­cent­age points.

And she points to the new ac­cred­i­ta­tion, known as the La­bel FrancE­d­u­ca­tion pro­gram, which will bring a host of re­sources to ben­e­fit all stu­dents, in­clud­ing a French-speak­ing intern, a vis­it­ing artist and an op­por­tu­nity for a teacher to study in France. Al­ready, the pro­gram helped fund the school’s first round of test­ing for DELF diplo­mas awarded by the French Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion Ed­u­ca­tion to prove French lan­guage skills.

MPS’ lan­guage schools were at the cen­ter of a de­bate this spring over the high cost of bus­ing in the dis­trict. Pressed by board mem­bers to rein in MPS’ $64 mil­lion a year trans­porta­tion costs, then-Su­per­in­ten­dent Dari­enne Driver floated a num­ber of pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing one that would have lim­ited bus­ing for the city­wide schools to a seven-mile ra­dius around those build­ings.

Teach­ers and fam­i­lies, mostly from the lan­guage schools, turned out in protest. Rolling back bus­ing, they ar­gued, would cut off hun­dreds of chil­dren, ef­fec­tively re­seg­re­gat­ing the schools and set­ting up a se­ries of domi­noes that would send the pro­grams into a down­ward spi­ral.

“If this pro­gram is harmed to the point that it can­not func­tion, then what we’ve re­ally done is turned our backs on the whole idea of in­te­gra­tion,” said Mar­garet Rozga, the widow of the late Civil Rights ac­tivist Fa­ther James Groppi, whose chil­dren and grand­chil­dren have at­tended Mil­wau­kee French Im­mer­sion and whose daugh­ter now teaches there.

“Is in­te­gra­tion still a value? Is an in­clu­sive com­mu­nity still a value?” Rozga said. “If it is, then we need to make de­ci­sions that pro­tect that value.”


Teacher Dawn Bal­istreri leads her 4-year-old kinder­garten stu­dents in a les­son at Mil­wau­kee French Im­mer­sion School. The school, one of Mil­wau­kee Pub­lic Schools’ most di­verse, re­cently earned an ac­cred­i­ta­tion from the French Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion. More...

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