Northern Vermont challenged by a bilingual experiment
Richford is on the border with French-speaking Canada. And there lies the rationale for a most unusual experiment in bilingual education.Skip to next paragraph
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Some six years ago, a team of administrators and teachers, noting with interest a bilingual French-English experiment in Maine, designed a five-year program for their district's (Northeast Supervisory Union) three elementary schools.
They won a federal Title VII grant in 1976. With the close of this school year comes the end of the program.
The Richford program is not one of teaching English as a second language, but of teaching French as a second language. And for about 40 percent of the children, it means teaching them the language they hear in their homes. For 10 to 20 percent, French is their primary language.
On one side of the Canadian border, where nearly everyone speaks both French and English, French is the dominant language. Not the French of Paris and Aix-en-Provence, but the patois of Quebec.
On the Vermont side of the border, where a minority of the population is bilingual, English is the dominant language. Not the English of London or New York, but the dialect of rural Vermont.
Hence, the writers of the Title VII program saw the need to further bilingualism on the US side of the border.
The decision was to start with the very youngest children - with preschoolers. Every year a selected group of four-year-olds gets a home visit from a professional bilingual child-care specialist and, three times a week, a bilingual aide.
I went along while twins (English dominant) had a lesson with a wooden puzzle toy and some plastic letters.The teacher and aide switched from French to English, and the twins follwed suit.
All four sang a little song with alternate verses in French and English.
In many of the homes, the children will hear some French spoken by one or more of the parents, but more often by grandparents.
Every year, 30 other preschoolers get some school-readiness help in both French and English. And the regular school program moves up the classroom ladder.
In 1977, for example, only the children in kindergarten and Grade 1 were taught French. In 1978, Grades 1, 2, and 3 were included. The next year the special teaching took place in Grades 2, 3, and 4. And in this final year, it is the children in Grades 4, 5, and 6 who are having the special instruction.
There's a director for the program and her secretary. There are three professional teachers - each one assigned to an elementary school. There's the preschool specialist. And there are about a dozen aides. The total cost of staffing the program comes out of the federal grant.
The professional teachers all hold advanced degrees, all have studied for a time in France, and all design many of the curriculum materials they use. The mainstay, though, is the printed materials purchased (with grant funds) from a Quebec school publisher.
A typical lesson consists of a professional and an aide dividing up a fourth- , fifth-, or sixth-grade classroom for half an hour a day every day of the week.
During the half hour a lesson is taught with a specific goal in mind.