A few days ago, NYC school principal Giselle Gault-McGee passed away after a long battle with cancer. Indomitable, fearless, and bold she was a bilingual revolutionary who helped us launch New York’s first French dual-language program at her school, P.S. 58 in Brooklyn. Below is how I portrayed her in my book, The Bilingual Revolution. She will be missed!

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Giselle Gault-McGee, photographed by Jonas Cuénin

It all started in April 2006 when three tenacious mothers walked into principal Giselle McGee’s office at P.S. 58 in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, hoping to convince her that a French after-school program would be a worthy addition to her school. Like these mothers, many French-speaking families in the neighborhood were looking to sustain their children’s French outside the home. Little did the French community know that Giselle would not only accept the after-school idea on the spot, but that their conversation would lead to New York’s first French dual-language program, and the avalanche of programs throughout the city that followed. The French dual-language story in New York highlights the powerful domino effect of the Bilingual Revolution. Behind the force of a committed and motivated community, dual-language programs can multiply to serve ever-growing populations of bilingual students.

The Influence of Supportive Advocates

Until the age of five, this instrumental principal Giselle was bilingual, speaking French at home with her mother and English with her father. It was only when she started Kindergarten in Staten Island that she abandoned her French skills, as none of her classmates spoke French. Giselle grew up in the 1960s, when assimilation was prioritized in recently-arrived immigrant communities. Elementary schools did not even offer foreign languages at the time, meaning that children could not build upon their home language in the classroom if they spoke a language other than English. This is how five-year-old French-speaking Giselle lost her mother tongue. It is a story all too common in the United States of decades past, and a phenomenon that recent trends in bilingual education are attempting to reverse.

With her own story in mind, Giselle enthusiastically inaugurated the French dual-language program at P.S. 58 in 2007. The positive encounter between the three mothers—Catherine Poisson, Anne-Laure Fayard, and Mary-Powel Thomas—and their committed principal paved the way for numerous groups to replicate their efforts. Following the lead of this original group, new parents organized themselves into a critical mass—receiving the support and commitment of key community stakeholders and school administrators. This movement led to the creation of dozens of French bilingual programs throughout New York City, as well as in several other cities across the United States, over the last ten years. The ongoing success of P.S. 58’s program encouraged new waves of parents to approach schools with French dual-language proposals, ready to do whatever it takes to bring bilingual education to their local neighborhoods. To this day, educators and researchers in the U.S. and abroad point to this particular program as a shining example of the power of dual-language programs in the 21st century.

As other communities in the city began to hear of P.S. 58’s success, a growing synergy emerged between several organizations. These included the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, several non-profit and philanthropic organizations, local French-language news magazines, and Education en Français à New York, a volunteer-based organization whose mission is to provide French offerings in neighborhood public schools. This dynamic collaboration facilitated the multiplication of the number of French dual-language programs in New York in a remarkably short period of time. It planted the seeds for the original bilingual revolution in New York City in what would come to be known as the “French Bilingual Revolution.”

Excerpted from The Bilingual Revolution: The Future of Education is in Two Languages (pp 49-50)

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