Parlez-vous Français? Do you speak French?
Claire Nicholls is teaching kids this phrase and more at her La French Classe business and after-school program for kids 4 to 15.
The business started teaching French to kids 20 years ago, and has since changed hands and names a few times. Nicholls took over the school three years ago and re-named it La French Classe. It now has about 50 students attending the after-school program.
For the last two years, the school has been renting a space in Mountain View Lutheran Church. But La French Classe is now ready to move on to bigger and better spaces.
This fall, Nicholls’ new partnership with Hartford Sylvia Encinas Elementary School in Chandler will come to fruition. Using their classrooms after school, Nicholls will now be able to offer more classes at the same time — something she said she’s been wanting for a long time.
The school was originally for French speakers with children who wanted them to be fluent in French, but now it has grown to include students with English as their first language who are interested in learning French.
Each family has a unique story. Sometimes children come from families with only one French-speaking parent, which can mean they know and understand French but do not speak it at home. La French Classe steps in to help these children maintain the language.
Nicholls herself started out as a parent when she moved to the U.S. in 2015 from Toulouse, France. Her children were too young to have attended school in France — her youngest only in kindergarten at the time — but she still wanted them to understand their native language.
The after-school program was perfect, because it gave her kids the opportunity to learn English at school and French after school at La French Classe.
“I preferred my kids to go to a very good American school, because you have very good American schools here…(but also) to have an after-school program to learn how to read and how to write in French,” Nicholls said.
Fellow teacher Debra Lee similarly stumbled upon the school while searching for a place for her two daughters to attend.
The girls were both adopted from Haiti, and it was important to Lee that they maintained their first language — French. At home, the Colorado native speaks exclusively French with her daughters —with the exception of “Spanish Sundays,” when the girls practice their Spanish.
Lee graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver with a double bachelor’s degree in English and French, so it was only natural for her to speak French with her daughters.
“I was always drawn to primarily the language — the sound of it, the flow of it,” she said. “That’s my gift to my kids. You give your kids what you have and know.”
Tony Lee, Debra’s husband, was also heavily involved in and supportive of the school before his passing three years ago. Lee then decided to join the team as a teacher two years ago after seeing the impact the school had on its students.
“It’s kind of like any other asset that you have, it’s an advantage that can open up doors that you may not even realize,” said Lee. “When you grow up with that, you have a more global, international perspective.”
About 275 million people around the world speak French, and the language is not just isolated in France. More than 96 million French speakers live on the continent of Africa, and around another 2 million live in the U.S., according to 2017 U.S. census data. The school currently has children from Belgium, Senegal, Morocco, Madagascar, Quebec, Haiti and the island of Mayotte.
Debra understands this multicultural influence can be a powerful tool in teaching the language to young kids.
“I want them to have an appreciation for the language and culture, so I like my classes to be not only work, but fun and enjoyable. I think that’s the environment I’ve created,” Lee said.
Diana Kyrisch’s daughter has attended the school for three years, since she was 6, and is in the immersion program with Lee.
“She loves Miss Debra. Miss Debra brings in French cuisine and introduces all these different things to them about the culture, it’s just an experience,” she said. “It’s not just about the language, it’s about the culture.”
Kyrisch has spoken Spanish since learning it in middle school, however she thought it’d be best for her daughter to learn French so she didn’t affect her learning.
“She has no accent at all compared to other kids that are French-American. Because I don’t speak any French, I don’t mess her up,” she said with a laugh. “(I don’t) speak it to her, because she’ll correct me!”
The kids have another year to look forward to at an even better location. The new location is set to be up and running by the 2019-2020 school year at 700 N Hartford St, Chandler, and will hopefully be the school’s resting place.
“For the larger community, I’m really happy,” said Lee. “Having claire, I respect Claire a lot. When she became the director, that was a big change. But this change may not have even happened if she weren’t at the helm, and it is the right thing to do.”
“We would follow it anywhere,” Kyrisch said. “It’s good for the school.”
The school currently offers 30-week courses, an hour and a half a week, for both French and English speakers, or francophone and non-francophone. Registration for the new school year, August through May, begins May 5 and goes through May 20. The first child is $809 for the school year, and additional siblings are $737 each. Fees for books and registration are not included.
The school is also offering a new summer day camp for intermediate level, French-speaking children July 22-26, 9 a.m. to noon.