A French Immersion Charter School:
Kansas City's Académie Lafayette
The ACIE Newsletter, February 2001, Vol. 4, No. 2
By Paul A. García, Ph.D.,
Professor of Foreign/Second Language Education,
University of Kansas; Member, Board of Directors, L'Académie Lafayette
Académie Lafayette, the first Charter Public School in Missouri, is an independent public charter school unaffiliated with - but nevertheless an outgrowth of - a once-extensive immersion project undertaken by the Kansas City, Missouri, School District (KCMSD). Following a federal court order in November 1986 to desegregate the public schools, KCMSD embarked upon an ambitious magnet school project. The array of programs offered included ten immersion schools, K-12, where French, German, or Spanish was offered. A subsequent court order in June 1995 marked the beginning of the collapse of the entire KCMSD magnet school project - despite the teachers' skills and dedication and the academic success of the immersion and the arts programs. By 1999, the German program and the 9-12 portion of the French and Spanish programs had been eliminated; the French and Spanish programs, grades K-8, were reduced to two sites. Further, immersion content subjects were curtailed.
The parents, especially those from one immersion site, were instrumental in seeking a charter from the State of Missouri during late 1998. L'Académie Lafayette was inaugurated in August of 1999 to 250 boys and girls in kindergarten through Grade 8; most of the children in Grades 1-8 arrived as transfers from KCMSD. The school is located in the southwestern part of Kansas City, in a leased school building that is part of the Temple B'nai Jehudah complex. Admission to L'Académie Lafayette is open to all residents of the KCMSD. Class size is limited to 20 students. There is very little attrition - fewer than 12 students in 1999-2000. Indeed, there was even a waiting list for the early grades this August. Plans include growth to approximately 475 students in Grades K-8, with eventual connections to an appropriate 9-12 program in the area.
Content area instruction takes place in Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies, Art, Physical Education, and Computers. English-language arts instruction begins at Grade 1. Special emphasis is placed on science and reading/language expression in both languages through the use of hands-on, culturally authentic activities and a curriculum that features high expectations. Achievement results (Stanford Achievement Test, mandated by the state-recognized charter sponsor, Central Missouri State University) were more than simply encouraging: they showed strong gains for almost all of the students in all the grades and outpaced comparative school settings, charter and public, in many sub-areas. (The SAT will be used as a baseline by the university; testing of French achievement is planned for 2001-02.)
The faculty is outstanding, and hails from across the globe. Among the staff of 24 there are 19 immersion teachers (including teachers of English, Special Education, and Music) from Belgium, Cameroon, Canada, France, Senegal, and the USA. Three of the 19 are Americans with advanced degrees in French and elementary education. Five of the staff are Africans or African-Americans. The average classroom experience of the teachers is about eight years, with several enjoying the fruits of more than twenty years' success.
Special features of the school include an "extended day" program. The students have enrichment classes in fencing, soccer, guitar, reading, a homework room, Cub Scouts, drill team, French choir, origami, and chess in the morning or after school. A strong, parent-friendly, though expensive feature of the program is the bus service. Students are picked up and dropped off at their front door if they live more than one mile from the school.
Another feature is the annual trip to Europe, which is funded by the students who sell everything from apples to you-name-it! In May 2000, 25 middle schoolers went on a two-week family homestay program in Marseille. For 2001, the homestay destination is Brussels.
The school's parents are very active in the education of their children. Volunteers are always present, helping in the class-rooms or assisting in the office. Programs such as performances are well attended, and Open House is really a Full House!
As with every school that opens its doors, the first years have been replete with challenges. Foremost among these is the matter of adequate financing - what we could do with a gift of one year's budget, $1.5 million! Lunch fees are partially reimbursed by the state, and transportation reimbursement (also by the state) is only 35% of the total expenditure. Benefits for staff are increasing - as is the case nationally. We are fortunate to have received a one-time grant for computers ($80,000) and continue to seek revenue sources for staff development, classroom equipment, library materials, and musical instruments.
As a board member, I have the opportunity to ask questions about what we can do to avoid repeating past "concerns" as we meet new "opportunities." Despite the continued need for a deeper financial commitment from the state, our faculty members, principal, and parents are correct in proudly pointing out how far we've come in 16 months (and the year of planning prior to that). We believe that the key to our continued success will remain family involvement and the chance for every child's caregiver to be part of the decision-making process. We also believe that present and future successes for French immersion students at Lafayette will draw patrons. Perhaps our readers might begin to hum "Goin' to Kansas City, Here I Come" - our Bienvenue mat is always at the door!
L'Académie Lafayette Charter School, Kansas City,
Teachers: 24 (19 Immersion, 5 English-Language)
University of Kansas professor Paul A. Garcia's teaching career in German and Spanish began in New York in 1965. From 1987 to 1995 he served as the instructional specialist for Kansas City, Missouri, foreign languages and international studies programs, implementing immersion programs there. His publications are in the area of methods and immersion education. He is currently president of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). He is a member of the Board of Directors of L'Académie Lafayetter. Please direct all correspondence to him at the School of Education, University of Kansas, email@example.com.