May 31 will be an occasion of mixed feelings for everyone involved with Herndon Elementary School’s French immersion program.
Past and present students, teachers, and parents will gather at the school around 6:30 p.m. that day to celebrate the program’s 30th anniversary, but the event will also serve as a final send-off, as Herndon Elementary will no longer offer French immersion after this academic year ends in June.
Though the program’s elimination has been underway for years, the prolonged nature of this farewell has not lessened the sense of loss that those who led or benefitted from Fairfax County Public Schools’ first French immersion program feel now that its departure is imminent.
“It was sad,” Herndon French immersion teacher Sylvie Naux-McVicker said, recalling when the school’s faculty learned six years ago that the program would be gradually phased out.
Math resource teacher Mona Samaha, who has been teaching in the French immersion program since the early 1990s, summed up her reaction with similar succinctness: “We were not happy.”
Introduced in 1989, Herndon Elementary School’s French immersion program is one of two French programs offered by FCPS, which also provides German, Spanish, Korean, and Japanese immersion.
Where a traditional world language course teaches primarily through vocabulary and grammar memorization, immersion programs offer a more in-depth experience that requires students to spend at least half of the school day taking regular classes taught in the language they intend to learn.
In Fairfax County, students enrolled in the immersion programs receive math, science, and health instruction conducted in their target language, while English and other language arts classes are still taught in English.
Admission into the immersion programs is determined by a lottery system that families can enter when their child is in kindergarten or first grade. No new students can enter after second grade, because the rigorousness of the program means that they would be unable to catch up with their classmates.
FCPS currently has 17 elementary schools with immersion programs, including one-way immersion, where English speakers learn the target language, as well as two-way immersion, which combines English speakers looking to learn a new language and native speakers of the target language looking to learn English.
“Being in the immersion [program], the students are involved in a conversation, in an activity, in experiments,” Samaha said. “…It’s a natural way [to learn], like a mom would talk to her child in her native language and they learn it.”
When FCPS started language immersion in 1989, the idea was treated with skepticism by some parents concerned that the challenge of learning a new language would hamper their children’s ability to pick up math and science, according to Carmela Taylor, who served as the first French immersion teacher at Herndon Elementary and has since retired.
Still, the immersion programs had an experimental feel during their early years.
Herndon Elementary School’s principal and parents in the community were instrumental in bringing a French immersion program to the school, according to Taylor.
The school was given a choice of offering immersion in French, Japanese, and Spanish and ultimately opted for French.
A French teacher with a high school education certification and some prior experience teaching in elementary schools, Taylor’s interest in Fairfax County’s proposed immersion programs was piqued by the prospect of getting to teach French as well as math and science, two subjects she had always enjoyed.
After spending a summer taking classes and becoming familiar with the county’s math and science curricula to prepare, Taylor entered the school year responsible for two classes of 30 first-grade students.
New teachers were added annually after that as students progressed from one grade to the next. At its peak, the French immersion program had two teachers for every grade level, one who taught in French and one who taught the language arts courses in English, and classes averaged about 27 students each.
Those early fears about how processing the subjects being taught in a second language would affect students’ proficiency turned out to be unfounded.
“I just felt that it really worked,” Taylor said. “I saw the progress that the children make, and they were learning the subject matter…The children were very successful in the math and in the sciences.”
Samaha joined Herndon Elementary around 1993 as the immersion program’s first sixth-grade teacher.
A chemist by background, she was looking to get a job teaching either French or science, and FCPS gave her the option of teaching sixth grade at Herndon or first grade at McLean’s Kent Gardens Elementary School, which was in the process of starting its own French immersion program.
“I made the choice to be in Herndon, just because I’m used to teaching older students and it was closer to my house,” Samaha said. “So, I chose Herndon, and I’ve been here since then, from the first generation to the last.”
For teachers, immersion meant more than teaching students how to speak or write in French. It meant introducing them to a different culture and building a sense of community.
A Mardi Gras celebration suggested one year by a teacher ended up involving the whole school as immersion students collaborated with art teachers to create masks that they wore during a parade through the building.
Herndon Elementary’s annual International Night also originated from the French immersion program when teachers started discussing how they could introduce students to not just France, but also French-speaking countries like Canada, Lebanon, and Morocco, according to Samaha.
Over the years, program participants engaged in a variety of activities, from trips to the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., and games of petanque to a French book and video club and visits from native French teachers who stayed with host families.
As the program developed, a buddy system emerged where older students paired up with and mentored their younger peers.
Most importantly, the immersive approach was more effective than traditional classes at ensuring students learned and retained French.
“I just enjoyed teaching the subject matter and they really enjoyed it,” Taylor, who taught both immersion and regular French classes, said. “Teaching them all the cultural things, I just found it very, very interesting. The children that stuck with it, they seem to have a real love for it.”
However, Herndon’s changing demographics, declining student enrollment with the opening of Kent Gardens’ program, and new regulations that made it more difficult to recruit teachers all contributed to the school’s decision to bring its French immersion program to a close.
With more incoming students from a Latino background and interest in French declining, the school decided to shift its focus to English as a Second Language classes and a new two-way Spanish immersion program, which currently serves kindergarten through fifth grade.
“If we do two-way immersion Spanish, then we help the students from a Spanish background to learn their English better, and the English speakers will learn the Spanish,” Samaha said. “The French, unfortunately, will have to pay the way, so it was a very difficult decision.”
The sixth-graders now completing their French immersion will be the last students to ever take the program, but they will go out on a festive note, as current and former students and teachers reunite for a celebration next Friday.
In addition to offering refreshments, desserts, and a photo booth, organizers have invited former teachers and students to speak, and a recording of students reflecting on their experience with the immersion program will play throughout the evening.
Samaha and Naux-McVickers plan to continue teaching at Herndon Elementary and have already begun to transition to new subjects, with the former becoming a math resource teacher and the latter switching to English.
The experiences and relationships they had through the French immersion program, however, will not be easily forgotten.
“It was a successful experience, a beautiful section of our lives that is coming to an end, but we will always celebrate French in our life,” Samaha said.