For a group of about a dozen children gathered recently at the Solon Community Center, the beauty of the French language and culture was brought excitedly to life.
From story time to lessons on reading and writing, children from toddlers to age 12 took part in the first classes offered by Petite Ecole Francaise de Cleveland, a nonprofit organization that began a pilot program in the city which will run on Thursday evenings for the next five weeks.
The French school grew out of a need for local French families to connect, especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Solon resident Gaelle Knight, who serves as the school’s treasurer, explained.
“During COVID, there was this need to connect and be together,” Mrs. Knight, 43, said of French families throughout Greater Cleveland.
What started as a What’s App group of a handful of French families exchanging tips on activities for their kids or book exchanges organically grew over about four months into the idea of a school, she explained.
“We have a common goal of living here, not on a temporary basis, and also a common challenge that, as our kids grow in this environment, French is not the main language spoken at home.”
Television is in English and their friends are English speaking, so the need to continue to embrace the French language over time is that much more important, she said.
“Little kids need to be together speaking to one another and hear people speaking French,” said Mrs. Knight, a mother of four who came to this country from Saint Etienne, France in 1999.
After establishing a need to get the kids together in a safe environment, the idea came to have someone trained teach them. French parents serve as volunteers for story time for the younger children.
Petite Ecole Francaise de Cleveland is supported both logistically and financially through the French consult, under the Chicago chapter. Team members who visited the school last week included the president of the French Chamber of Commerce, the Cleveland French consult representative and the president of a local French language circle.
“The French government has a lot of interest in French people living abroad to support the French language,” Mrs. Knight explained. “It’s a mission of them to promote the language.”
The French school must therefore meet various guidelines to garner that support, she continued, including having a certified teacher and curriculum, among other things.
For now, the pilot program of the school will be held in the banquet rooms at the Solon Community Center, but Mrs. Knight said the possibility of a brick and mortar “real full school” can be possibly down the road.
She also wants to bring forth the lesson to her children and others that “the world is a big place,” noting that in most countries, it is common to speak two or even three languages.
In addition to fluent French, Mrs. Knight speaks some Spanish. She converses regularly in her home with her family, including her youngest daughter Chloe, 5, a kindergartener at Roxbury Elementary School, who was in attendance at the school last week.
“She has this amazing ability to speak in French and make a sentence and then switch to English to finish the sentence,” Mrs. Knight said. “The fluidity of the brain is something we need to keep.”
Over the years, Mrs. Knight said she has been able to maintain her children’s knowledge of the French language, with technology like FaceTime to speak to her family abroad helping greatly.
“There is the need to have something that you can keep from your homeland, your home country, especially language,” she said.
She has taken her children many times to France, where her family still lives, she said. The last time she has visited her homeland was in November of 2019.
“It’s been too long,” she said.
Mrs. Knight, who has dual citizenship, becoming a U.S. citizen in 2016, said that, moving forward, it is hoped that the French school will also be home to celebrations of various French holidays.
“As the program continues, we will do things for the holiday season and we will play French music,” she said.
Lakewood resident Alexis Castel, who grew up in Montbeliard, France, and who was instrumental in starting the school, said the overall goal is to provide some education in French for the French kids in the area, not just with language but also with the culture. He said many local families share in that same goal.
“Conveying a culture is through language and cooking,” Mrs. Knight added. “The kids that are in this pilot program are the kids of the (local French) families.
“It’s a tremendous gift to be able to give to your children,” Mrs. Knight said. “My hope is that for my children they have this fluidity and opening onto the world that can make them great travelers, accepting of other countries and other people.”