Home Languages Are An Asset For New Immigrants And Their American Schools

The French Heritage Language Program (FHLP) is a foundation-based non-profit organization working in partnership with the French Embassy in the United States. Its mission is to provide free French classes to underserved schools and French-speaking communities, and to advocate for the teaching of heritage languages in the United States.The FHLP currently serves 500 students from Kindergarten through grade 12 in New York City, Florida, Maine and Massachusetts.

In New York City, the program has been working closely with the Internationals Network for Public Schools (INPS), which includes fifteen public high schools for new immigrants. All of their students are English Language Learners with up to 30% originating from French-speaking West Africa and Haiti. Many of these schools were looking for ways to offer these students home language support in order to facilitate their integration at school and into their new environment. In 2005, the FHLP started offering free project-based language and cultural classes in French after-school, two hours a week, helping francophone students maintain their French, improve literacy in the home language and build strong academic skills that could reinforce their acquisition of English and their understanding of other subjects at school. Relying entirely on volunteer participation, the first classes were met with success but also faced many challenges.

For community-based, “vendor”, or other independent organizations, operating free afterschool activities in American public schools poses many problems: financial dependence from external funding, risks of unstable attendance, severe competition from more recreational programs, and a lack of incorporation into the schools’ own programming. To solve this, the FHLP decided to look for new incentives to make its classes more engaging for students and appealing to schools, while extending weekly hours of instruction and better integrating them into the schools’ regular programming.

The FHLP’s strategy was to create rewards for both students and their schools by enhancing the role that French could play into building academic success. The first step was to have schools recognize the quality of the French classes by awarding participating students with high school credits and offering Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) subject tests. But more significantly, the program was able to convince principals that by having their schools participate financially and logistically in the French class with added hours of instruction and the integration of most courses within regular school hours, the program could offer consistent preparation to the Advanced Placement (AP) French examination and open the possibility for their students to gain college credits. This is also a strong impetus for schools to adopt the program, as it develops their college readiness capacity and can boost their performance index report with the local educational authorities.

French Club at International Community High School, Bronx, with student Hassanatou Samake in center, six in from the left.

For Hassanatou Samake, senior at International Community High School, keeping up with French has helped to strengthen her professional bilingual skills. A student in the French Heritage Language Program, Hassanatou Samake also teaches kids between 5 and 9 years old at the Malian Cultural Center in Harlem every Saturday from 4-6pm.


I love to work with kids. We have fun together and we are all French-speakers. It’s my pleasure to help people learn about our culture. […] to know us and what we do.

At first it was difficult to get students to do the homework, but the attendance started getting higher and they now start correcting each other and that makes me proud. I have learned from more experience this year and became more flexible. It’s important to make the learning fun for students.


Last year, Hassanatou and other students at ICHS devoted 4 hours of their time after-school and in the morning for French language instruction in preparation for the French AP exam. Hassanatou received a top score of 5 (out of 5) on the exam.


When I applied to Antioch College, they asked me if I had any AP credits. And when I told them that I got a 5 in AP French, they said that’s what they’re looking for […] and they gave me money for it.


She also described her first experience with the French language group at ICHS upon arriving in the US:

When I came from Mali, I only spoke Bambara and French, so when I saw other students speaking the same language, it helped me to learn English but also stay with my French. [The program] is important in many ways. I speak English but it helps me to be bilingual. It was hard at first [as a teacher’s assistant] but I developed skills from my internship every Friday at the NY French American Charter School to teach.


Hassanatou plans to study engineering at college and has more multilingual aspirations, tackling many different languages including Spanish and German.


When you speak many languages you can talk to different people from different countries. I have friends from all over the world. I interact with all these people. And when you speak their language, it makes them happy […] So you are not speaking English all the time. 


Despite their many years of working with English Language Learners (ELLs), few of these schools had ever considered offering any AP exams, which are often seen as too difficult for these students. If this may be true for subjects like Math and English, it is certainly not the case for foreign languages, one the many skills in which ELL students excel. In 2013-2014, three high schools co-financed the extension of their FHLP class to four hours a week, with two hours placed in-school during elective scheduling, allowing the program to pilot its first AP French prep class. Out of the nineteen students who took the test, seventeen attained scores between three and five, making them eligible to receive credits at most U.S. colleges today. Encouraged by this initial success, the FHLP was able to extend this model to six partner high schools in 2014-2015, with a record of sixty-five students taking the test in May 2015. One of the first schools to offer AP French classes through the FHLP even went on to adapt this model for its Spanish and Chinese-speaking students. Megan Williams, assistant principal at Bronx International High School, confirms the benefits of this model:


Spanish speakers see French kids [taking the AP courses]. So they advocate for themselves. [Asking] why do they get to do that? It’s just great... For the language and native language skills: Those skills transfer in their acquisition of English. And the benefit of the test [if they pass] is that’s one more class they don’t pay for. 


At Bronx International High School the elective scheduling model they have adopted is unique in that it has made French classes compulsory for francophone students. Williams also explained how the current in-school programing works well for the visibility and academic recognition of the students involved.


Proud Principal Joaquin Vega at Bronx International High School (photo creditsYasmeen Khan)


Capitalizing on the enthusiasm generated by college credits, the FHLP developed a similarly innovative model by partnering with LaGuardia Community College through the City University of New York’s College Now Program. In 2013, the French department at LaGuardia Community College approached the FHLP to see how they could reinforce enrollment by recruiting French Heritage high school students for their French courses. The mission of College Now is to offer college-level courses to high school students, making it possible for them to earn credits before enrolling in a higher education institution. Both the FHLP and LaGuardia were convinced that French heritage students could strongly benefit from this offer. In the spring of 2014, the FHLP and LaGuardia combined their efforts to complement the existing FHLP afterschool class at a Brooklyn high school with an on-site College Now extension directly run and financed by the LaGuardia French Department. The French College Now program was granted at no cost to students or the school, and augmented the existing two-hour FHLP afterschool class with a three-hour of College Now course. All students registered in the new course had to follow both programs in order to gain credits. The pilot project was met with outstanding success and all participating students received college credits. The class was renewed in the spring of 2015 and increased its capacity by including FHLP students from another partner high school in Manhattan.

Professor Habiba Boumlik sees great potential in the partnership between LaGuardia Community College and the FHLP to create more College Now opportunities for high schoolers.   


At LaGuardia Community College we see [these courses] for career purposes. Students should be helped and their skills valued…[so they are able to] use their heritage language in a professional setting […] We have some great instructors and have been receiving good feedback this year to help develop the program.


Dr. Boumlik hopes to see more development for the future through a publication project of new materials for heritage language speakers. The Department of Education and Language Acquisition at LaGuardia has already paved the way for increased attention to the needs and skills of heritage language speakers. Students with heritage language backgrounds in Arabic, Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese have had the opportunity to participate in the yearlong scholarship programLuce World Pathways (launched in 2013 with support from the Henry Luce Foundation) geared at the professional development of heritage language speakers’ unique linguistic and cultural understandings.


[The Arabic courses offered at LaGuardia], in addition to writing, also provide lessons in literature, culture and civilization.  I’d like us to develop this program even more [to include] early childhood education in Spanish and bilingual education for French. 


Students at work!


Kathleen Rucker, principal at Brooklyn International High School, agreed in the importance of offering additional language programs to help maintain and develop students’ linguistic skills.


LaGuardia Community College has been a very important partner for BIHS.  Through this partnership we are able to offer French courses for college credit in our school building which increases the participation and has allowed for cross collaborations with our sister schools Lafayette International High School and Union Square International High School.  This is one of the few opportunities that students across different INPS schools have a chance to work together on a regular basis, building friendships and strengthening our inter-school community.

The French Heritage Language Program has been integral to helping our Francophone students not only maintain their native languages, but also to further develop their language as they work on long-term projects directly tied to their lives in the afterschool courses. We are so excited this year to have Madeleine Shukarani, one of our graduates, working as a teaching assistant in the French heritage class.  Madeleine is a former student in the French program and serves a dual role as a teacher and a role model for our newly arrived students who are only beginning to understand and take advantage of the opportunities available throughout our school community.


Offering college credits has proven to be a very effective strategy to promote the teaching and institutionalization of French and other foreign languages in American public high schools, especially in cases where these schools did not initially have any form of foreign language instruction at all. It also offers higher education institutions like LaGuardia Community College an innovative way to attract more students into their foreign language departments. The success of this institutionalization shows that far from being a liability, heritage languages can be a serious asset for new immigrants and the U.S. school system at large. 

For more information about the French Heritage Language Program please visit our webpage here or contact us at fhlp@face-foundation.org.