A New French School Accompanies 'Le Car' to Detroit
Southfield, Mich.--The school day often begins with a rendition of "La Marseillaise." All curricular matters are approved by the French Ministry of Education. Signs in the hallway proclaim, "Vive la difference."
But the Lycee International School is located in neither Marseilles nor Montreal. The fully accredited private day school is in suburban Detroit; it is one of just three schools in the United States offering complete academic instruction in the French language, according to its headmaster. (The others are in New York City and San Francisco.)
The Lycee opened two years ago, shortly after the Renault Motor Company bought a major interest in American Motors Company. The French automaker moved about 50 executives to Detroit, creating a demand for a special school to educate their children.
Enter Jack Faxon, headmaster of the former City School of Detroit. Mr. Faxon struck a deal with Renault, which provided funds, and City School became Lycee International.
Today, about 30 of Lycee's 130 students are the sons and daughters of Renault employees. Another 25 are French nationals or children of foreign diplomats living in the United States. And the rest are Americans whose parents are willing to pay $2,750 per year for a European-style, no-nonsense education.
"Our philosophy is quite different from that at most American schools," says Mr. Faxon, who is also chairman of the state Senate's education committee. "The French style of education is more rigorous and academic. School is not designed to entertain children. They must work harder, and they are expected to achieve more at an earlier age.
"It may not be as much fun for the children," he adds, "but I believe they learn more. I've seen our children perform at standards much higher than those for most American private-school students."
Lycee is actually two schools, open to students aged 2 to 16. The French students study a mandatory curriculum handed down by the French Ministry of Education. They take standardized French achievement tests and study English as a second language. American students study French as a second language. Other courses are offered in both languages, and students are encouraged to "cross over," particularly in the upper grades. All students are expected to attain fluency in both languages.
"The attraction, obviously, is that the child becomes bilingual," says Mr. Faxon. "We start them at 2 years old, and it amazes me how quickly they pick up the foreign language."
Guillaume Fargues, a 2nd grader from Boulogne, is trying to improve his English. A shy little boy who likes American television cartoons, Guillaume prefers to respond in French to his teacher, Catherine DuPouy.
"Guillaume, comprenez-vous Anglais bien?"
"Un peu," he whispers.
Lycee's French and American students mix freely at lunch and recess, where they share the habits and fads of unfamiliar cultures.
"I learned a few French curse words," says Julie Wechsler, 15. "But I learned a lot more, too. Their music, they way they dress, it's real different. It's sort of fun acting foreign in your own hometown."
Mr. Faxon says the school's bilingual atmosphere creates an excitement about learning. Most schools, he argues, comprise a homogeneous collection of students and teachers. At Lycee International, he says, "la difference" makes everyone more receptive to new people and new experiences.
And despite his admonitions that French-style education is not designed for enjoyment, it is clear that the students and teachers here are having a good time.
"It's nice because the classes are so small--no more than 15 at a time," says Ms. DuPouy, who came to the United States from Bordeaux four years ago. "I'm able to spend more time with each child and be more creative than I was in France."
Still, Ms. DuPouy is obliged to follow the curriculum and methods mandated by the French government. In that country, Mr. Faxon says, all aspects of education--from course offerings to classroom equipment--are dictated by the national government. There are no local school boards and there is little pa-rental participation.
Mr. Faxon encourages parents to become more involved than they would in the French system but his school's curriculum follows the classic French format: Mathematics is more theoretical than in the U.S.; science is more experimental; and as early as 2nd grade, students read classical literature.
"I went to France before I opened this school," says the headmaster. "I saw students there mastering objectives our students didn't even touch. I said, 'That's for me.'
"We're working it so that our French graduates can go straight to a French college without skipping a beat," he adds. "Come to think of it, we're working it so that our American students can do the same."