Milwaukee Public Schools boasts several immersion schools - places where students learn almost exclusively in a foreign language. A pioneer in that movement here is the Milwaukee French Immersion School. The school was created as part of the district's ordered integration plan in the 1970s, but has lasted and thrived well beyond that original mission.
This June, the French Immersion School marks its 40th anniversary with a visit from a dignitary from the French government.
"Immersion education is just the most natural way for children to really learn the language," says Gina Bianchi, principal at MFIS. "There's so many benefits, cognitively... they can naturally take on the accent, and they really just don't question learning another language. They're very eager to learn new words and learn all about it."
Monique Meese is an alum of the French Immersion School who began her French education when she was only four years old. She says her mother waited in line, braving harsh winter weather to ensure her daughter would have the opportunity to attend the school.
After Meese had children of her own, she was eager to send them to the French Immersion School as well. Her son, PJ, was excited to attend the same school as his mom. He says learning French was difficult at first because he didn’t even know his ABCs in English yet. Today, the fifth grader he learns everything - from math to science to social studies - in French. "It's weird," he says, "but at the same time, it's not, because this is my only school, and I've been learning in French my whole life." But that's meant he stands out a little on his youth basketball team. "Sometimes, [my teammates] call me 'French Fry'," he laughs.
When the school opened in 1978, only 100 students were enrolled between German and French immersion. Today, the French Immersion School's enrollment is around 600 students, drawing from Milwaukee and the surrounding suburbs.
Although the school has changed locations and evolved from its humble beginnings, the school's original mission has not changed. Principal Gina Bianchi stresses the importance of diversity and cultural variance at the school. She says it can sometimes be difficult to recruit staff who are certified in French language education.
“A big focus of our school right now is really trying to highlight the different countries around the world who speak French,” says Bianchi. “We’ve been able to hire some newer staff that come from different French-speaking countries from Africa. That has really brought in this beautiful, different cultural aspect.”
Over the last few years, the French Immersion School has been building a relationship with the French government. To celebrate the school’s 40th anniversary, the French consulate will be visiting from Chicago and honoring the school as a France-labeled education school.
“It really attests to the high level of French language that our teachers have, our support staff have, and our students attain by the time they complete our program,” says Bianchi.