The bell rings. Through the window of the principal’s office, a troop of children file out of the schoolhouse, swathed in raincoats and boots as they line up beneath gray storm clouds. There is laughter and screams of delight. Most speak in English. Teachers and supervisors watch, glancing furtively toward the sky and murmuring to each other in French, as the children trudge onto the buses. This is the end of a school day at New Orleans’ acclaimed Lycée Français, a French-language public charter school that’s setting an example not only for the state but for immersion schools across the country.
For decades now, there have been rumbles and whispers statewide about the French language in Louisiana: a sick man who just won’t die. Louisiana’s recent accession to the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF), a global organization that exists to foster ties between francophone and francophile countries, has set off a new round of whispers. For the first time in decades, activists and leaders feel a glimmer of hope—a glimmer that has only grown in the months since October of 2018, when the state was admitted to the OIF. Such activists disagree on many issues, but the one thing they unanimously agree upon is that any conversation must center upon the children. They are the future. And the future begins in schools.
“Going from zero experience,” says Chana Benenson, principal of the Lycée Français, “to growing that in their lives, in creating a sense of purpose—it’s not just a subject that you study in school, it has real life applications—that was really important to me.”
As with so much else in New Orleans, the Lycée Français’ story begins with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The storm caused no less damage to the schools than to the rest of the city. With much of the New Orleans’ educational system in disarray, new programs and opportunities were made,including the expansion of the charter school system. “With the emergence of the charter schools,” says Benenson, “there was a bigger priority on bringing French back.” The Lycée Français itself was founded in 2011. With two classes of twenty-five students each, first through eighth grade, the school has since received an enormously positive community reception. Benenson says that the students are comfortable spontaneously switching from English to French, and indeed do so in the course of their everyday lives. They enjoy learning, and their French brings personal confidence as well as exterior knowledge.
“Kids come in with a preconceived notion of themselves,” says Benenson. “But they’re not just memorizing facts; they’re applying so much of their learning. So it was really . . . I think, empowering, for students to be doing rigorous work that didn’t feel scary. They’re excited, and everything they learn, they didn’t know before. So they feel powerful and they feel smart and they feel excited.”
Do the students enjoy these programs? Their parents certainly do. Admission to New Orleans’ French-language charter schools can be competitive, and demand is high. According to the Lycée Français’ website, the school currently serves 939 students—twice the 466 students enrolled in the 2014-2015 school year.
What do students think? “We all kind of love-hated it,” recounts Blair Tanenbaum, a native New Orleanian and a veteran of Hynes Charter School’s French immersion program, which he attended from second to sixth grade. “But at the same time, there is something very special about it. The first year, I remember being extremely confused and frustrated. Then, sometime in third grade, it all started to click.”
This is not uncommon among students at the Lycée Français, few of whom have any prior exposure to the language. “We went from having, well, few to no students with any experience in French,” says Benenson, reflecting upon the program’s beginning. Some things don’t change; according to the Lycée Français’ website, over 95% of the students’ parents don’t speak French. Their children excel regardless, particularly the older ones, whose standardized test scores often outstrip those of their monolingual peers.
Louisiana is unique among the fifty states for its pockets of Creole culture. (Creole, in its original sense, refers to any descendant of the colonial inhabitants of Louisiana without regard to race or ethnicity. Cajuns, by this definition, are technically a subcategory of Creole rather than an outside group.) Historically, francophone Catholics and anglophone Protestants—or les Américains, as the latter were disparagingly nicknamed—had distinctly different cultures, mentalities and political preferences. Assimilation has eroded many of these differences over the past fifty years, and nowhere is this more evident than in New Orleans, where Creole culture has morphed and shifted to a greater degree than in the countryside. The immersion program children are unique in this regard, as they represent new blood in a struggle that predates the Civil War. Unlike their predecessors, they often straddle both sides. Ancestry and religion are no longer the issue. Unlike in Acadiana—the twenty-two parishes in south-central Louisiana wherein the French language and culture has persisted longest, where students often identify as Cajun-Creole or have French-speaking grandparents—New Orleans’ immersion students are often several generations removed from any francophone Creole heritage. Many lack it entirely. The bond that they have with the French language is organic, however, insofar as it is not an issue of preservation and restoration so much as the creation of something dynamic and new. This is reflected in the student population’s diverse and varied origins.
“There’s a large—well, large—there’s a considerable number of Latino students who attend here,” says Benenson by way of example, “and . . . anecdotally, talking to parents, they see it as a priority because they say, ‘Well, my child’s already going to be learning Spanish, so what a cool opportunity for them to learn French too. It’s not our cultural heritage, but our child will be trilingual.’ So that’s kind of neat, because it’s one of those unintended consequences that’s pretty positive.”
Tanenbaum was another such student. “My grandparents were not Cajun-Creole at all,” he says. “I am not French at all. But I do identify with French culture, because I grew up in New Orleans.”
Is this significant? Joseph Dunn, former director of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, believes so. “I think it’s important to note that neither Cajun nor Creole are synonymous with French-speaking or Creole-speaking. There is a relational disconnect to heritage languages in Louisiana because we’ve been programmed in English to consider them foreign languages.”
Although immersion courses are taught in Standard French—a longstanding source of irritation for Louisianians since the 1960s, some of whom claim that Standard French threatens the survival of their native dialects—neither students nor schools forget their unique home environment. Benenson says that the Lycée Français supplements its classes with field trips that often incorporate local Louisiana history, such as a recent excursion into the French Quarter.
And such trips are hardly confined to the city limits. Benenson says that the school is currently considering a multi-day trip to rural Acadiana, hopefully exposing its students to native francophones along the way. She shows nothing but enthusiasm at the idea of Lycée Français students being exposed to Louisiana French speakers. Benenson is pleased to hear of the numerous projects including a podcast, an online gazette and a television channel, being spearheaded by Louisiana French speakers, many of under the age of thirty. She hopes this will encourage her own students by demonstrating the cultural impact that young, French-speaking Louisianians can shape.
All of this points to a singular outcome: the emergence of a new generation of francophone Louisianians, or Franco-Louisianais, tied to their home state but untethered to any past Creole identity. It’s a novel idea for a state that defines itself so much by its past, and it’s a refreshing, encouraging identity for francophones today, particularly for those who, being neither Cajun nor Creole, are excluded from such identities. The immersion schools are a hotspot, even a cradle, for this new generation.
“Many students would not adhere to either a Cajun or a Creole label,” says Joseph Dunn, who acknowledges and encourages the shift. “Where do we create a French identity for them as we move forward with this re-francization that we’re trying to accomplish? For me, the idea of Franco-Louisianais [simply ‘francophone Louisianian’] puts the emphasis on language identity rather than ethno-cultural identity.”
Tanenbaum also thinks this accurate. “I agree with you wholeheartedly. For me, [the connection to the French culture] is a city thing. I’m really glad I did it, and I feel closer to the state because of it.”
Benenson confirms that the students simply see themselves as French-speaking Americans. “Most families have no background in French. But many of them find it interesting. Many parents just say, this school is a high-performing school on standardized tests,” implying that French is merely a happy addition to parents’ ultimate goals. Créolité, or indeed French ancestry of any kind, doesn’t have to come into it.
For whatever reason—whether due to high test scores or a desire for cultural enrichment—the future looks bright for French immersion programs in New Orleans and particularly for the Lycée Français. In response to high demand, the school is expanding yearly, tacking on additional grades each fall. Next year, in autumn 2019, the school plans to host its inaugural freshman class, its first foray into high school. If Tanenbaum’s reaction is any indication, such an expansion is something the children themselves desire—or, at the least, will be grateful for in future.
“I would have appreciated it immensely in retrospect. Oh, yeah.”
Dunn believes that the emergence of a new francophone generation is nothing but good news for the future of French Louisiana, and he greets the news with joy. “I’m one of the old people now,” he says, laughing. “You guys are starting to carry this.”