Merci is a word that’s thrown around quite a bit at Ecole Bilingue, East Bay’s oldest bilingual school, and it’s not just because its 500-odd students have a lot to thank their teachers for.
Conversational French is encouraged at this private French-American institution located in West Berkeley, and teachers, students and parents can be spotted talking fluent French at any given point of the day.
“They grow up with two norms so they know there are always two ways of looking at things,” explained Frederic Canadas, principal, during the school’s 30th anniversary celebration Friday.
“EB (Ecole Bilingue) is very special. In 30 years we opened a middle school, a one-to-one laptop learning program and five new languages. I think we are trying to ensure that EB will be here in the next 30 years so that we can celebrate its 60th anniversary.”
Canadas, a veteran in bilingual education, grew up in Grenoble, France, and has taught in schools all over the world.
“I came to EB from Finland and fell in love with it,” he said. “It was a dream come true.”
Accredited by the French Ministry of Education and the California Association of Independent Schools, Ecole Bilingue grew from humble origins.
Tired of ferrying their children across the Bay Bridge to the French-American school in San Francisco, seven families came together in 1977 to start their own bilingual institution in the East Bay.
“I went to the French-American school in the city,” said Odile Arizmendi, “and we commuted all the time. My mother, Annie May DeBresson, and some other families decided that there was enough interest in bilingual education in Berkeley to start a school here.”
DeBresson’s grandchildren, Olivia and Matias, are both EB students.
“Some of the teachers who taught my brothers and sisters are still here,” Arizmendi said, “and they are really affectionate towards my children. That makes all the difference in the world.”
Although tuition—at $15,115 for Pre-K through fifth grade and $17,490 for sixth through eighth grade—is steep, enrollment has never been better.
“Parents are disappointed that their children are being wait-listed,” he said. “One of the challenges that the school faces right now is getting its facilities upgraded. We need bigger buildings to accommodate more students.”
Besides excelling in academics, students are also taught to be global citizens.
Last year the EB community reached out to children affected by Hurricane Katrina through Project Backpack and also raised money for leukemia research and relief efforts in Africa.
Apart from focusing on French and English curricula, the school also offers its students and their families a community, one that offers them the best of two worlds and that is culturally, economically, and religiously diverse.
On Friday afternoon, after listening to a brief history about their school, students were treated to homemade cup cakes and then sent home with a packet of California poppy seeds.
“The obvious thing that strikes you about the school would be language,” said Arizmendi, “but the less obvious thing would be the true diversity. It’s like a home away from home.”
More than 46 nationalities are represented at the school, and students come here from places as far-flung as Morocco, Belgium and Papua New Guinea.
“When I first came here, I didn’t know English at all,” said fourth-grader Laila Bendrai shyly. “My mom’s from Morocco but I grew up in Montreal, Canada. So my first language is French.”
“We couldn’t understand what she was saying,” said Cassie Fox-Mount. “But then I learned French and she learned English and we became best friends.”
Almost half the students at EB arrive at the school without any prior exposure to French but are introduced to the language in their “maternelle” (kindergarten) classrooms.
“Before they get to the alphabet, they learn basic songs and instructions in French. By the time they get to first grade, they can read and write in French,” said the school’s communication officer Jennifer Monahan. “Kids here learn things they don’t learn in any other school. Eight-year-olds are taught about the Civil War, Neolithic cave art and the Roman Empire. My daughter is learning trigonometry in sixth grade.”
Monahan, who has a Ph.D. in French from UC Berkeley, said that EB graduates go on to attend some of the best high schools and colleges in the country.
“By the time they get to eighth grade they are really articulate,” she said. “Their critical thinking and conversational skills are really amazing and they develop a very deep and complex understanding of the world.”
Tucked between the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Factory and the future home of the Berkeley Bowl on Heinz Street, the middle school classrooms resemble buildings out of a Harry Potter novel.
“They were built like that to break down barriers and create opportunities for collaboration and friendly competition across grade levels,” said Canadas.
Thirty years ago, however, the campus was a different place.
“There were about 50 students and eight to 10 teachers,” said fourth and fifth grade English teacher Zooey Gouguet, who was part of the original faculty.
“There wasn’t a lot of hierarchy and it was more of a cooperative effort. Jeannette Rouger, the headmistress, not only handled admissions and all the accounting, but also taught a class. The campus was also a lot smaller. We only had four classrooms.”
Over the years more classrooms took over a former bindery, bakery and a Moroccan copper warehouse.
“The school has become 10 times bigger, but its philosophy remains the same,” said Gouguet. “The idea is to bring out the likes and differences between two cultures and languages. There are words which have the same origin but others that are totally different.”
Decorated with charts representing the Founding Fathers, French alphabets and maps, each class tells its own story.
“I like the multicultural aspect,” said fourth-grader Catherine Gougeln, as the bell rang for school to end.
“It’s fun because you get to learn two languages. It helps when you want to tell secrets.”