By Katherine Parker
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — “Bonjour, je m’appelle Emmalynn,” a small voice echoed through the halls of Reagan Elementary school early Thursday morning.
Emmalynn Grippen, a kindergartner at Reagan, slowly and shyly stepped outside her classroom door to introduce herself and announce that she wanted to be a veterinarian. A resounding “Awww” was the reply Emma received from three Franco-American Fellows visiting Oklahoma.
Quentin Cunha, Eléanore Dumont and Mathieu Chevré are high school students from France who were selected to visit Oklahoma and conduct research on selected topics through Oct. 26. Cunha is researching architecture and how that relates to tornadoes, Dumont is researching economics and Chevré is researching transportation.
In March 2007, the Oklahoma State Department of Education signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Académie d’Amiens, the education system for the region of Picardie in northern France.
The partnership created opportunities for schools and teachers across the state, including the Franco-American Fellows Program. The program offers French and Oklahoma high school and community college students the opportunity to travel on short-term fellowships.
While in Oklahoma, Cunha, Dumont and Chevré took time out of their busy schedule to learn about Norman Public Schools’ French Immersion Program. The French Immersion Program began August 2012 with 26 students in each kindergarten and first grade.
After observing Reagan kindergartners learning math by drawing “beacoup des cinq,” or “a lot of fives,” Chevré said he was impressed and thought it was a great way for kids to learn his language.
Nancy Gorton, director of NPS world languages, English language learners, French immersion and family/consumer sciences, said the French Immersion Program is effective because the French language is the vehicle for learning.
“Research shows that being bilingual increases mental capacity,” Gorton said. “When you learn a language under the age of 10, it’s stored in the same part of your brain as your native language. After 10, it isn’t.”
Principal Carol Burton said after the first year of the French Immersion Program, there wasn’t a lot of need for remediation at Reagan.
“We had very few students in the program in need of remediation,” Burton said. “And this isn’t because all the students are from Reagan. Half of the students are from other Norman Public Schools.”
In Europe, immersion programs are a newer idea, said Tatiana Viallaneix, assistant of Académie d’Amiens' Délégué Académique aux Relations Européennes Internationales et de Coopération.
Viallaneix, who brought the three Franco-American Fellows to the U.S., said Académie d’Amiens wants to develop immersion programs.
“We’re really happy to be with the kids and see the structure of an immersion program,” Viallaneix said. “Right now, we’re working on putting an immersion program for English together.”
The NPS French Immersion Program recruits 26 students for kindergarten each year. Students spend part of the day learning math and science in French and then learn reading and social studies in English.
Students who enter the program in kindergarten, which is currently taught by Claire Allison, will continue with the program through fifth grade.
Half of the program’s slots are reserved for students within the Reagan school district, and the other 13 slots are open to students from all other NPS districts. Students must go through an application process.
Gorton said if more than 26 students apply for the program, then a blind drawing determines program participants. Teachers in the French Immersion Program must have early childhood certification and be fluent in French.
Eventually, NPS would like to move the program to other schools, she said.
“I think that’s one of the best things (of the program) — equal access through the application and blind drawing process,” Gorton said. “The classrooms really represent the cross section of NPS.”
At the end of their visit, Cunha, Dumont and Chevré immersed themselves in the classroom experience for a game of Sparkle. Students formed a circle; beginning with “un,” or “one,” they counted until a mistake was made.
Not to be beat by the French natives, Reagan students counted to more than 200 until first- and second-grade teacher Alina Bagajewicz had to call the game a draw.
“They’re so cute and smart,” Dumont said.