If you read my post last month reviewing French immersion schools in Portland, Oregon, I'm sure you've wondered how my school visits went and what choice we've made for the coming school year. Here's what I observed and, further down, what we've decided:
L'Etoile is a sweet little school--truly more petite than I'd realized, with three classrooms and a small room for gym activities. (They're expanding to a second building next year.) But small schools generally show good results, even if they lack the resources of larger schools. With 18 students per class at l'Etoile, there was just one place left in kindergarten (grande section) for my daughter next year. At the open house, she played with a new friend while I spoke with the school director and a teacher, and at that moment I really wanted my daughter to attend l'Etoile for the friendships as well as for the immersion.
Realistically though, it took us fifty minutes to drive there, and that was not during commuting hours. If my daughter were an only child I might consider the drive worthwhile, but as our local children's librarian pointed out, her little brother would have to make that trip four times per day--there and back, twice. (I could enroll him in their early preschool program, but since he's only two years old, I'd rather help him learn at home.)
I briefly looked at homes for sale in that part of Portland (it's lovely!), but my husband's work commute would be exhausting from such a distance, and I know how miserable commuting can be.
I also visited the French American International School and was surprised how much I liked it. Granted, we visited on a brilliantly sunny spring day, but the 14-acre campus was truly lovely, with open fields, covered play areas, and wooded paths for nature and science studies. (For the past several years, the first graders have helped establish mason bee habitats in the natural areas there.)
Contrasting my experience at l'Etoile, FAIS is larger than I'd realized, with three first grade classrooms alone. (They expanded to take in the French students who were stranded after the closing of the Portland French School several years ago. At that time, FAIS was the only other French-government accredited school in Portland since l'Etoile was just getting established and hadn't been accredited yet.)
The majority of FAIS students come from the zip code where the school is located, but the remaining students come from a larger radius around the greater Portland area. I was thrilled to learn that carpooling is encouraged and counts towards required parent volunteer hours. (Parents can find students by area in the school directory.)
The middle school students at FAIS seemed both well-rounded and academically serious, pulling backpacks on wheels as they transitioned between classes. They chatted in French as well as in English, which I found encouraging, considering that the middle school is an IB school and has immersion tracks in German, English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese as well as in French.
The FAIS library was a delight to see, featuring rows and rows of French and English books, magazines, and audio books. My children immediately sat down in child-size chairs and started flipping through French books, and later wandered over to the magazines. I eventually had to drag them away to continue our school tour. Libraries are such a delight! (I didn't see the designated library area at l'Etoile, but they did have alluring French children's books in each classroom.)
I also intended to visit Le Monde, the French immersion public charter school, but two months have passed and no one in the office has returned my phone calls. That doesn't help improve my impression of the school, as the online reviews about Le Monde are quite mixed.
Our school decision for next year:
Having planned to homeschool since my firstborn was an infant, I re-evaluated our schooling plan this last spring. It was later than it should have been for enrollment next fall, but I was drawn to French immersion school options because I suddenly recognized the fluency that my children could gain.
However, in speaking with the preschool teacher at l'Etoile, I was reminded that most students entering kindergarten immersion are monolingual English speakers, and though the teachers intentionally promote an immersion environment, total immersion isn't implemented until January, halfway through the school year. While my daughter would gain fluency eventually, she's already far ahead of where most of her classmates would be linguistically, so it's not imperative that she begin immersion school this coming year.
And at FAIS I was reminded that French schools do not begin compulsive schooling until age six, in cours primaire (the equivalent of first grade). While important for school preparation, kindergarten is not universally viewed as an rigorous necessity.
School choice is an important and deeply personal family decision. As my husband and I discussed our options, he (the public school teacher!) reminded me that homeschooling offers opportunities that schools can't provide. It's something we'd love to try, and even though I'm not a native French speaker, I can still teach our children in French. And reassuringly, we'll can revisit our decision again next year.
I don't always ask my daughter to offer her opinion on decisions that are ultimately better left to the wisdom of parents, but after our school visits I did ask her whether she'd prefer to homeschool next year or attend one of the two French schools we'd visited. To my slight surprise, she said, "Homeschool. It seems more fun." And I have to laugh and agree with her five-year-old perspective. Homeschooling offers a lot of freedom and flexibility that goes hand-in-hand with the early years of learning.
So our family agrees: we'll homeschool in French next year. I look forward to sharing our journey with you, including the resources, challenges, and tips I discover along the way. Allons-y!