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.

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.

And all lessons in French are tied in with the local curriculum, so that the day I visited a fifth-grade class, the lesson was on the mountains and rivers of Vermont, material that has to be taught during the regular social studies class period.

The aides are local women who are bilingual. They do not speak Parisian French, but the local patois. The bilingual professional uses the more standard French dialect, and together they help the children understand both standard French and the local dialect.

Interestingly, there have been many in the communities involved who disagreed with the teaching of French, and several parents asked that their children be exempted from the French lessons.

In some classrooms, then, there are a few children (no more than five in any one class) who do ''something else'' while the French lesson proceeds. Some read a storybook, others fill in the blanks in workbooks, and many pretend they are doing ''something else,'' while this observer noted they were keeping up with the French lessons ''on the sly.''

The key seems to be the regular classroom teacher. If that teacher thinks it's ''foolish'' to be teaching French and taking away ''from my valuable teaching time,'' then the nonparticipating youngsters seem to be otherwise engaged.

But the supportive teachers - and many have taken after-school French lessons from the bilingual professionals - appear to look the other way as the nonparticipating children listen in on their bilingual brethren.

The program has an external evaluator as well as constant testing and evaluation by the professional staff. The signs, they report, are all positive.

The children are learning French. Both the children who hear patois French at home as well as those from totally English-dominant homes appear to be bilingual, in an elementary way.

Each year there is a field trip across the border and an exchange trip from Canadian schoolchildren. During these occasions, bilingualism is a total experience.

This June the program ends. The local school boards have not voted to apply local funds to continue it.

The French teachers at the high school level have not indicated an interest in teaching at the elementary level.

Several community members, as well as several teachers in the area, expressed serious misgivings about the whole program and argue that basic skills in the elementary classrooms have suffered (particularly arithmetic) because ''so much time has been spent on French.''

Paula Johnson has been with the program from the beginning and, until she was granted maternity leave this spring, was the director.

She feels the program has been a success for the children involved, but - and it's an enormous but - the failure is enormous. That is, the failure to get the local school boards and a majority of the population to recognize the importance of teaching both French and English throughout the school years for all children in the district.

What will be left when school closes this June?

Paula Johnson answers, ''Just a few materials.''

Then she brightens, adding, ''And a lot of children who love French.''

What does the Richford High School French teacher say: ''I'll be interested to see what those seventh-graders know when they get here next year.''

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