'The best-kept secret in American education today'

Can a bright American teen-ager, largely monoligual and an every-day shampooer, fit happily into a European family with differing values, habits, and language -- and, simultaneously, continue preparation for a top American college?

Some might have found it improbable, but for 16 years more than 100 American students a year have done so under the auspices of the School Year Abroad (SYA) program. Junior and senior secondary school students live for nine months with French or Spanish families, acquire a native competence in a second language, and continue their academic studies.

With considerable justification Harrison McCann, its executive director, calls SYA "the best-kept secret in American education today."

The program was founded in 1964, sponsored by Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass.; Phillips Exeter, Exeter, N.H.; and St. Paul's School, Concord, N.H. In 1975, a corporation was established making it legally and financially independent. It now includes 17 private and public associate schools.

There are two branches: one in Rennes, France, where 60 students attend classes in the Franco-American Institute, and the other in Barcelona, Spain, with 45 students.

In Barcelona, SYA occupies the second floor of a 19th-century building on the Rambla de Cataluna. In the 1979-80 school year, students came from more than 53 schools with priority given applicants from sponsoring and associate schools. Each student must have two years of the chosen language or the equivalent.

The program lasts from September to May, and participants do not go home for Christmas. Sponsored trips of several days' duration are offered at varying times: in France, for example, to Normandy and in Spain to Altamira and the Bay of Biscay.

The syllabus suggests college-level work: British and American novels, poetry , and drama; math with vectors and polar equations; surveys of French or Spanish literature.

Other curriculum requirements must be met in the home school. Students are encouraged to join local sports clubs and follow other interests such as chess, music, flamenco dancing, and Breton folklore.

Georges Krivobok, SYA coordinator at Andover and former Rennes Program Director, taped a candid discussion, called "SYA -- A student's view," with four 1978-79 Andover returnees. A major question he raised was whether the program had fulfilled its objectives of academic achievement as well as near total immersion in the foreign language and culture. All agreed it had.

"I lost no academic ground," reported Andrew Gilmour (who later went to Harvard), "and it complemented my years at Andover." Isis Lum (Oberlin) and Chris Smith (Stanford) praise the Barcelona teachers, who had received them "lost, lonely, and confused," and helped them adjust and apply themselves academically.

L. M. Bierry, honorary professor at the Lycee Chateaubriand in Rennes, teaches language, phonetics, and coloquial French.* "When they arrive," he says, "we assure them, even the weakest, they will be all right at the end of the school year, and most of them are so indeed.

"By May several could be mistaken for French people, not only because of their pronunciation and intonation, but because of the colloquial French they have acquired with their families and friends, and in class."

D'accord,m one might say, but what about living in a foreign household? Alexandra Woznick (Rennes 1979-80; Milton/Brown) regards the family relationship as critical; hers was ideal.

"If it's good, it's great; if it's bad, it can be horrible. But either the student or the family can request a change, and the guidance is excellent." She found that language fluency came quickly with the aid of classes, her French family, and television.

Chris Smith had initial difficulties in his Spanish family with seven children. After counseling, he adjusted; "My mind opened in surprising ways to cultural differences."

All students must adapt to European frugality, especially regarding hot water (i.e., not a shower a day), but most come to understand it.

Making native friends can be difficult. Isis Lum met Spanish students through flamenco dancing and fencing, and advises American girls "to change and live as Spanish girls do;" that is, not wear provocative clothes or keep the hours they might at home.

Many made friends through foreign siblings, but Mela Lew (Rennes 1978-79; Andover/Smith) cautions against "expecting the expected." Her French brother only worked at home and did not bring friends, but she met French students at the institute, as others did.

Personal growth and the assimilation of another culture outweigh drawbacks, on the whole. "I left the States with a somewhat cynical attitude about its ideals, society, and systems," admits Alexandra Woznick, "but I've returned with a much more appreciate and understanding eye. There wasn't time to waste on the frustrating moments abroad; I just kept looking for the exhilarating ones."

Liz Bomann (Rennes 1979-80; Rye High School/Stanford) concurs: "You have to be a little curious, a little naive, and ready for anything. The best aspect is the independence, the do-it-yourself attitude about any decision."

Travel also ranked high on the list of benefits. All students saw other sections of their residential countries, often on program-arranged trips, and many traveled widely.

Most returnees advise going as seniors. "Otherwise," says Liz Bomann, "you must renounce your independence." "So many emotional ties are broken, so many changes happen," Alexandra Woznick says, "that coming back to one's old school would be difficult."

Fees for 1980-81 will be $7,000 exclusive of air fare, exam fees, books, and incidentals. Board, laundry, tuition, and holidays arranged by the program are included. For details write Harrison McCann, executive director, School Year Abroad, Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass. 01810.

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