French school opens doors to English speakers

Even though Muna Dawaji is only six years, she’s got a plan. In a few months, she hopes she'll speak French just like any Parisian strolling along side the River Seine.

“I learn really, really fast,” she says.

Muna is one of four English speakers in a pilot program at Lycee Francais de Chicago. Previously, the school focused on educating French-speaking students.

The pilot program opens the door to non-French speakers, teaches them the language and then integrates them into the main curriculum.

The new program is aimed at parents who want their English-speaking children to learn in a dual-language environment, says Lycee spokeswoman Delphine Lenoir.

The school, which opened in 1995, enrolls 550 students at its campus near the corner of Lake Shore Drive and Irving Park Road.

After turning away a number of students who didn't speak French, Lenoir says, the school began looking for alternatives.

First, administrators experimented with simply admitting some particularly bright non-French speakers.

“It was too hard,” Lenoir says. “The parents would insist that the kids were really smart, but it was so much work.”

The new program admits students to what's called the welcoming class. It functions like an English as a Second Language course -- but in French.

A group of non-French speaking kids are sequestered into their own class with a bilingual teacher, who works with them to bring them up to speed, Lenoir says.

Michael Thelen of Park Ridge enrolled his two kids, Michelle, 10, and Alexandre, 7, in the program this fall.

Fluency in two languages will help his kids in the future, he says.

“I want them to have a greater number of options,” says Thelen, who speaks German, French, English and Polish and has worked extensively overseas.

The class is capped at eight students. This fall, six students enrolled, but two dropped out when their families moved.

So far, the students, ages six to 10 years old, are progressing faster than expected, says teacher Christelle Chavet, who grew up in suburban Paris.

At first the students spent all their time with her. But now all of them spend at least part of the day in the regular school,  where only French is spoken.

“I didn’t know how fast they would learn it,” Chavet says. “In French, their communication is amazing now. Of course, they still have a lot of learn, but they are all at a great level.”

Muna, the youngest in class, has progressed the fastest. She may begin attending the regular Lycee full-time shortly if her reading ability continues to improve.

Her French skills have already had an unfortunate side effect, says her mother, Najah Dawaji, who grew up in Europe.

“She’s already correcting my French,” Najah Dawaji says. “I do make some mistakes and she spots them. One time she said to me, ‘Mommy, do you really know how to speak French?’”