Harlem Says ‘Oui’ to French Charter

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Many students are West African immigrants

By Max Sarinsky

On one side of a 2nd-grade classroom hangs a collection of students’ writing assignments in English; on the other side, a world map in French. Some bathrooms are marked “Bathroom” while others are marked “Toilettes.” A copy of the minutes in the main lobby from the latest board meeting is in both French and English.

These are just a few of the most visible examples of the bilingual identity of the New York French American Charter School, which opened on West 120th Street earlier this fall. The school’s mixed identity extends to its teaching—the majority of classes are taught in French using the French curriculum, while others are taught in English with the American curriculum.

“We take the best of each one,” said Principal Katrine Watkins, who conceived of the school two years ago. “It’s neither fish nor fowl.”

Watkins said that she expects the integration of the French education systems to improve the quality of education. She noted that the French system emphasizes neatness and structure. For instance, 1st-grade students are taught to write in cursive, she said.

“We’re way down there in quality as far as the world is concerned,” she said about American education. By borrowing from the best French teaching methods, Watkins said that the charter school is “pushing kids to the top, no matter who they are.”

Watkins, who is American, is a veteran of both French and bilingual private education—she taught at the Lycée Français de New York on the Upper East Side and also co-founded the French-American School of New York in Westchester 30 years ago. She said that the French American Charter was unique among all area French schools not only through its free admission, but also its emphasis on Francophone culture. Many of its students belong to Harlem’s sizeable West African community, and Watkins said that class work will emphasize a few different French-speaking countries each year.

“It’s a type of celebration, saying we all count,” Watkins said. “My hope is that [students] will develop an identity that is much different than it would have been otherwise.”

In its inaugural year, the school serves only grades K-2, with about 150 total students. It plans to add a grade each year, until it is a K-12 school with an International Baccalaureate program.

Watkins said that all of the challenges of leading the new school—including planning for expansion, maneuvering city bureaucracy, managing expectations of parents from dozens of different countries—have been keeping her extraordinarily busy. Nonetheless, she still has time to work with the students. Upon entering a kindergarten classroom on a recent morning, many of the students flocked to the entrance.

The first student who approached her spoke in French, and she responded in French. Another student greeted her in English. Without hesitation, Watkins responded in English.

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