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Parlez-vous français? Anchorage school lottery opens with a new immersion program

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: January 5
  • Published January 4

The Anchorage school lottery is open, and parents will see a new program this year on the list of education options: French immersion.

The logo for French Language Advocates Anchorage, a local nonprofit that submitted the proposal to start a new French language immersion program in the Anchorage School District. Photographed at an Anchorage School Board meeting November 5, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The Anchorage School District is launching the language immersion program at O’Malley Elementary School on the Hillside starting next school year. It’s the first K-12 French immersion program in Alaska, said Brandon Locke, director of the district’s world languages and immersion programs.

“We’ve been talking about starting French immersion for a long time,” he said. “It’s long overdue.”

ASD’s immersion programs

French immersion is the school district’s latest offering in its collection of specialty programs and charter schools scattered across the municipality. The district already has immersion programs in Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Chinese and, most recently, Yup’ik. German immersion is the foundation of one of its charter schools.

“I don’t want to toot our own horn, but I will say that Anchorage is a leader in both breadth and depth of immersion programs,” Locke said.

In immersion programs, some core subjects are taught in English and others in a second language with the goal of making students bilingual.

A New York Times article in 2015 reported that dual-language programs, once seen as a novelty, were exploding in popularity in areas across the country.

The Anchorage School District launched its first immersion program in 1989 in Japanese at Sand Lake Elementary. From there, its immersion portfolio grew. About 2,700 Anchorage students are enrolled in an immersion program this school year, a 5 percent increase from the year before, according to the proposal to start the new French program.

Anchorage parents who want their children to attend one of the district’s language immersion programs, another specialty program, a charter school or a neighborhood school other than the one they’re assigned to must submit an application through the district’s online lottery system. The lottery for next school year opened Tuesday and closes at 5 p.m. March 21.

Students selected for a spot in a program that’s not at their neighborhood school must have their own transportation to and from the building.

The new French immersion program will accept 50 kindergarten students through the lottery system this year, Locke said. They’ll be split into two classes in the fall. One class will spend the first half of their day learning in English and the other in French. Then they’ll swap teachers for the rest of the day.

The immersion program will grow with the students, accepting new kindergartners each year through the lottery and eventually expanding to Goldenview Middle School and South Anchorage High School, Locke said. At least, that’s the plan for now.

Currently, about 1,000 Anchorage students in middle and high school are enrolled in French classes, Locke said. There are 34 students who identify French as the language spoken in their homes, according to district data.

Locke said the startup of French immersion would not cost the district additional money. A local nonprofit, French Language Advocates Anchorage, has received thousands of dollars in grants, including $10,000 from the French Embassy, to help fund startup costs.

French Language Advocates Anchorage is also the group that wrote the proposal to start the immersion program at O’Malley Elementary. The group said it will continue to raise about $25,000 each year to help with program costs, according to its proposal, which was approved by the Anchorage School Board in November.

Anne Adasiak-Andrew, president of the nonprofit, said she’s been blown away by community support for the budding French immersion program. Adasiak-Andrew taught French in the school district for a decade and has advocated for the program for years.

“If you would have asked me last December if this was possible, I definitely would have had my doubts because the climate here in Anchorage, statewide, there’s no money. We’re cutting, cutting, cutting, cutting,” Adasiak-Andrew said.

Supporters of starting a French immersion program attend the Anchorage School Board meeting on Nov. 5, 2018. Jean-Charles Renaudineau (center left) and Christine Couturier, holding her 5-year-old son Simon (center right), are both from France. Each has a child who will attend kindergarten next school year. They hope to enroll them in the new French immersion program at O’Malley Elementary School. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The energy from parents paired with the recent grant money was enough to move the program from a hope to a reality.

Christine Couturier said she hopes her 5-year-old son, Simon, will start kindergarten in the French immersion program this fall.

Couturier was born and raised in France, moving to Anchorage more than five years ago. Her family doesn’t speak English and her husband’s family doesn’t speak French, she said.

“So, it is important for our children to be able to speak both languages and understand both cultures to communicate with their family,” she said. “We speak French to our children at home but it is hard to teach them French without any other support. Attending the French immersion program will provide them tools to be perfectly bilingual.”

How the lottery works

Parents can submit online lottery applications for the 2019-20 school year for as many schools or programs as they’d like, said Glen Nielsen, director of elementary education at the school district. Among the options: a Waldorf-inspired charter school, a Montessori school, a Russian immersion program and an elementary school with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

In 2018, 7,543 applications were submitted for 5,221 students in the Anchorage school lotteries. Of those, 2,747 students were accepted and placed into a school or program they’d requested, according to the district. That’s about 6 percent of the district’s total student body this school year.

Others were added to wait lists. Aquarian Charter School currently has the longest wait list in the district: There are 1,206 students waiting for a spot at the school, more than three times the number it currently enrolls. Students can be on more than one wait list, Nielsen said.

After the application window closes March 21, a computer program will order all of the eligible students’ names into a list.

The order is largely random, Nielsen said, with some exceptions: Students with a sibling in the school or program are given preference, as are those in the school’s or program’s attendance area. For example, a student zoned for O’Malley Elementary would get preference for the school’s French immersion program.

The lottery process could be “preempted" for three reasons, according to the district: for grade-level balance, for gender balance or if a student has a documented hardship.

Language immersion programs typically don’t accept students through the lottery after kindergarten or first grade unless they can demonstrate grade-level fluency in the language.

Nielsen said the date when applications are submitted into the lottery doesn’t impact the selection process. People can also log back into their online account and change their applications up until the deadline.

Nielsen encouraged parents and students to research schools and programs they’re interested in before applying in the lottery. February is Visit Our Schools Month at the district, with school tours every Tuesday.

Parents will find out the results of the lottery at 5 p.m. March 29. After that, there’s another chance to send applications into the lottery to fill remaining spots.

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