At the beginning of this 2010-2011 school year, the Louisiana Department of Education counted 3,416 pupils in French immersion spread across 29 schools in nine parishes. They are 3,416 reasons to believe in the future of French in Louisiana. Admittedly, one can say that it is only a negligible part of the population. This is true. But it is also true that this figure could have been much smaller, zero. The greatest truth is that this figure could and should be larger because each year, for lack of space, several children are not granted the chance to be enrolled in immersion and do not get off the waiting list. A child, except in exceptional circumstances, cannot integrate a program of immersion after the first grade.
Our programs, constantly threatened to get cut for purely fiscal reasons, continue to progress, despite everything, at a rate of about 4 and 8 percent each year. For the last 10 years, enrollment numbers have increased by 65 percent!
For this same period, one saw the numbers of French as a Second Language students drop by 46 percent and the total number of students enrolled in a second language program, no matter the language, to decrease by 18.5 percent. Ten years ago, Congress passed a law commonly known under the name of No Child Left Behind. It radically changed our way of evaluating our pupils and our teachers. It is from this moment on that one sees the fast decline in enrollment not only in second languages but also in music, art and other subjects whose direct impact on the improvement of standardized test scores was not recognized. In spite of the massive quantity of studies done over a long period of time that proved the direct link between success on these “high-stakes” tests and the teaching of these subjects that reinforced those of the “core,” (English, math and science), school after school closed French as a Second Language programs, often in parishes that had taught French since the beginning of CODOFIL.
Ten years on, one can note that things have calmed a little, the value of the teaching of the subjects such as music, art and languages are better recognized and that immersion continues to grow. It answers both the requirements of getting better school results and the desires of a certain sector of the population that wants the reintroduction of French in Louisiana. French as a Second Language had at least the merit of reintroducing French where it was once banished, but one must admit that it did not produce an enormous amount of French-speakers. Our immersion programs have achieved the required results, and this, combined with the enormous support of the parents who mobilize each time the shadow of danger of elimination presents itself, is why the parishes do not think too long about getting rid of them. It is well-known, with evidence to support it, that immersion students do as well – if not better – than their monolingual friends on the standardized tests in English. And moreover, they leave immersion bilingual, even trilingual in certain cases.
Lastly, it should not be forgotten that right in the middle of this decade, two major events hit our coasts: infamous Katrina and her less-famous but just as malicious sister, Rita. After the confusion and the despair of the weeks following the destruction, among the first schools to reopen in New Orleans were French immersion schools, offering hope to the city. This is proof of the absolute dedication of the parents, the teachers and the administrators have toward immersion. Among all the new ideas being tried to improve our education system, especially in New Orleans, the immersion seems to cut a choice place. Soon, a new school of immersion will open its doors. The Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans will start with sections of pre-K and Kkindergarten. Although it will follow the French curriculum to end up with, in 2018, the French baccalaureate, it will be a Louisianian charter school.
Some will say it’s ironic, others only justice, but it seems that French, in spite of having been forbidden in school by the state constitution, will play a growingly important role in the future of education in Louisiana.