Students settling in at French-American School

Last March, arrangements were made with the San Diego Unified School district for the French-American School to occupy the site at 6550 Soledad Mountain Road, formerly Decatur Elementary School. Staff members began the relocation process on Aug. 15, and the school was open for business by Aug. 31.

Some minor renovations were required. Most had to do with upgrading infrastructure. Exterior areas have been outfitted with new play equipment, grass and shade coverings, giving the students plenty of room to exercise. Outdoor space was a limited commodity at the old location on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.

“We’ve been able to upgrade our facility because we’ve had a lot of generosity from the parents and community,” said Virginia Berracasa, the school’s admissions and communications officer.

So far, administrators believe the move was a wise decision. Student enrollment has increased from 185 to 235, up by 26 percent, in just two months. The preschool is close to starting a waiting list. La Jolla families are showing signs that the school is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

The San Diego French-American School wants to challenge students with a rigorous curriculum and high expectations. Critical thinking skills and autonomy are instilled at an early age. Instruction is primarily in French, with about 20 to 25 percent in English.

“We want to be sure that our students, by the end of the eighth grade, can integrate into a French or American school,” said Andre Bordes, the school’s founder and principal.

The school hopes to ensure the success of its students through small student/teacher ratios - averaging 12 to 1 and slightly smaller for preschoolers - after-school tutoring and two-way dual language immersion.

“We’re a pre-college preparatory school,” Berracasa said. “It’s a program geared for academic success. It’s very challenging, but the students are proud of themselves. What we’re seeing now is that our students are going into public high school are taking advanced classes and advanced placement classes in French.”

Consisting of four buildings and a large outdoor area, school administrators are excited about the opportunity to take on new students, especially in the preschool and early elementary brackets.

“We’re always looking to expand our preschool, kindergarten and first grades because they serve as the foundation for the rest of the grades,” Berracasa said.

There are three classes in the preschool. Students are organized by age, from 2- to 4-year-olds.

“The majority (of preschoolers) are from families who want to encourage a second language,” said Babeth Esterly, the preschool’s administrator. “We have many American parents who don’t speak French ... but understand the benefits of being bilingual.”

Because young children are natural learners, soaking up everything around them, they are prime candidates for a bilingual curriculum.

“Everything that comes to them is a learning experience,” Berracasa said. “Whatever they see or hear in their environment is what they are going to absorb.”

The school is reluctant to accept students past the second grade if they don’t already know French.

“Parents interested in this program must understand that it takes four to six years to achieve a close to perfect bilingual (child),” Bordes said. “It’s a big challenge to enter a program at 7 years old when you don’t know the language.”

Along with its high expectations of students come high standards of quality for their teaching staff. The preschool teachers have the same credentials as the elementary school instructors. Course work is instructed by native speakers.

The new campus has room for a maximum of 400 students. Given the increase of multicultural families and communities, the ability to speak more than one language may become a necessity. There are more than 20 different nationalities among the student body at the French-American School.