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Monday, September 20, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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French Schools? Mais Oui! -- Student Enrollment Doubles At One School; Another Opening

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau

Learn French nursery rhymes. Use the metric system. Converse about French culture.

And as part of the $6,000 tuition, learn about French architecture by building a little French village on the playground.

It's French-immersion education, and more Eastsiders are saying oui to the concept, as evident by its growing presence in Bellevue and Mercer Island. One French private school is expanding. Another is starting up. Enrollment has doubled in less than a year, mostly through word-of-mouth.

Many of the students' parents are from Europe, working for Microsoft and other high-tech companies, and prefer their children get a French education.

Parents of other students are local and don't even speak French.

It's the belief that bilingual education provides an edge in the working world that draws many of them. Others just want their children to be well-rounded.

The perception that the French culture is glamorous and sophisticated makes it more inviting.

"We don't like to overstate it," said Connie Collingsworth, one of the founders of the French American School of Puget Sound, "but the French cachet doesn't hurt."

Sure doesn't when you see how much that first French school has grown in the four years since it was launched by four women who were from France or had lived in Paris. They thought that education standards here were not up to par with the rigorous French curriculum and that a bilingual education was a lower priority here than in Europe.

So they formed the nonprofit French-immersion school in 1995, initially operating out of a church basement in Bellevue with a class of 12. Enrollment grew tenfold in three years, and the school moved to Mercer Island this summer.

One founder, Veronique Dussud, left to open another private school, the French-American Immersion School of Washington, in Bellevue this month.

Together, the schools' enrollments add up to about 180 students, and school officials are convinced there is a hidden market here, especially as the Eastside gets wealthier and more cosmopolitan.

The area's only public-school immersion program is in the Bellevue School District, whose Spanish-immersion program draws 256 students and has a waiting list.

"Companies here are growing and expanding and going international, and they are attracting people from overseas," said Collingsworth, a Mercer Island attorney who has lived in Paris.

Some envision the Eastside eventually resembling Northern California, where there are six private French-immersion schools in Silicon Valley and surrounding areas, some charging up to $15,000 a year.

Educators say schools there have a large pool of international high-tech workers and upper-middle-class families to draw from, enabling them to survive and even thrive despite the intense competition.

But the Eastside is far from that stage. Both local French-immersion schools offer preschool, kindergarten and elementary course work but have had trouble filling the upper-grade levels. At the Mercer Island school, third- and fourth-graders are combined into one class. The Bellevue school goes only through the second grade.

But with most of the enrollment in the preschool and kindergarten levels, both schools are banking that those students will remain through their elementary-school years.

The new Bellevue school plans eventually to expand into high school. To do so, it needs more parents like Linda Kirk of Woodinville and Katherine Thiry of Redmond, parents devoted to bilingual education who believe the French curriculum is superior.

Kirk, a political consultant, put her daughter in a Spanish-language day-care center and hired a Spanish-speaking nanny when she worked in Northern California. Now she has enrolled her daughter in the Mercer Island program.

"The world is much smaller and more global," Kirk said. "I was hosting international trade conferences, and a lot of these technologists were bilingual."

Thiry researched 20 schools and was so impressed with the journals the kindergartners were writing in French schools that she enrolled her 6-year-old daughter in the Bellevue school.

"They could write in cursive," she said. "Their pictures are detailed and reflect a development of the mind. And they had mastered 20 songs."

The schools follow a curriculum outlined by the French government. Writing is emphasized in first grade as a way to teach the language and acquire analytical skills.

At Mercer Island, first-graders are taught how to count to 100, how to add and subtract, and how numbers are used in real life.

At both schools, only 25 percent of class time is focused on English.

Cathy Ebert, who teaches at the Mercer Island school, says she stops translating after two months to force her kindergartners to assimilate faster.

"The idea," she said, "is to teach them as if they were in Europe."

Tan Vinh's phone message number is 206-515-5656. His e-mail address is tvinh@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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