Victor and Yolanda Holden didn’t have jobs when they moved to Kansas City five years ago with their three young children.
But no matter. They came here from Indiana for one reason: Academie Lafayette, a French immersion charter school that operates on two campuses in urban Kansas City.
From day one at this school, students get their instruction in French. All of it. All the time.
“We have always been global thinkers,” said Victor Holden, who now works as an investigator of discrimination complaints. “We don’t want to limit the kids to what’s provided here in the U.S.”
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His wife is now an attorney with the Environmental Protection Agency. Before coming here, they researched language schools across the nation and settled on Academie Lafayette.
The school is an urban success story. Its students do so well on standardized tests (given in English) that parents are beating down the doors to get in.
To help reduce its waiting list, Academie Lafayette recently broke ground on a $3.5 million classroom addition for its campus at 3421 Cherry St., which houses students in kindergarten through second grade.
Lafayette leaders also are negotiating with Kansas City Public Schools to create a hybrid district-charter high school that would absorb graduates from its building at 6903 Oak St., which serves grades three through eight.
At the recent groundbreaking, Academie Lafayette board member Mike Zeller stood on the playground and pointed to nearby homes that were derelict a few years ago when Academie Lafayette took over the building that formerly housed a district French-language magnet school, Longan Elementary School.
The houses have since been renovated, and to Zeller, they represent a microcosm of the good that Academie Lafayette does for the city.
“It’s all bound up in socio-economic development and revitalization of the core,” he said. “It’s a virtuous cycle of growing population and rising prosperity. … Academie Lafayette shows it can be done.
“Fights are almost nonexistent. The MAP test scores are killing it. So we said let’s do more.
“There is a corrosive but widely held assumption that public education in the middle of the city can’t be good. Well, it can.”
Academie Lafayette was established in 1999 as a public charter school, sponsored by the University of Central Missouri.
That means the state subsidizes Lafayette students just as it does for Kansas City Public Schools, but the school runs itself, free from governance by the surrounding district.
The parents of Academie Lafayette students don’t pay tuition, as they would at a private school, but they are expected to participate in fundraising events and otherwise involve themselves in their children’s school experience.
By many measures, the academic results have been solid.
In 2009, Academie Lafayette became the first Missouri charter school to receive the Gold Star Award from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in recognition of its MAP scores.
In the most recent report card from the state, Academie Lafayette earned 87.5 percent of the points possible, putting it among the top charter schools in Kansas City and well ahead of Kansas City Public Schools, which won provisional accreditation by earning 60 percent of possible points.
The percentage of Academie Lafayette students who scored proficient or advanced in 2014 was 64.5 in communication arts, 73 percent in math and 72.3 percent in science. That compares to statewide scores of 53.5 percent in communication arts, 53.2 percent in math and 56 percent in science.
Sara Harms has three children attending Academie Lafayette. They are in grades two, four and eight.
“I love the fact that they’ve got teachers from all over the world — Cameroon, Belgium, Canada. They are exposed to so much more than they would have been anywhere else. … It’s a great community to be a part of.”
Harms said she is often asked, “Why French? Why not Spanish?” After all, so many immigrants to this country arrive from Spanish-speaking countries.
“The French community is wider than people realize,” she said. “When you listen for it, you hear it more. It’s a global language.”
Harms believes that students in a language-immersion program like Academie Lafayette’s learn to concentrate more, which could explain their high test scores.
Because it is a French immersion school, Academie Lafayette does not generally enroll new students beyond the first grade, although exceptions are made for those who come in with French-speaking skills. As a result, the school does not see the same influx of transient or immigrant students who enter general public schools throughout the academic year.
And it doesn’t hurt that many families don’t choose language-immersion programs unless they place a high value on education.
Board Vice President Marvin Lyman, the father of two students, said Academie Lafayette offers “an extraordinary program.”
“We are confident we have a program that works,” he said. “Parental involvement makes a huge difference.”
The Holdens are perhaps the ultimate involved parents.
In Gary, Ind., they had enrolled their son Vicari in a parochial school. The younger two were in preschool. But even at that point, they were looking for something different.
“Yolanda said, ‘Why don’t we start thinking of doing a language program for the kids?’” Victor Holden recalled.
Victor Holden speaks a little French, Yolanda none. But they settled on a Francophone education for its global value.
“We didn’t just look at Academie Lafayette,” Victor Holden said. “We looked at AIS (Atlanta International School), a school in Charlotte, N.C., and two in Chicago, and all of them had tuition upwards of $12,000 per year per kid.
“We said, ‘Are we prepared to pay the equivalent of college tuition for elementary education?’ The answer was no. But we were willing to make sacrifices if it came down to it, and we found this school in Kansas City, Mo. … We took a leap of faith for our children.”
The Holdens moved here in 2009 and enrolled Vicari in first grade at Lafayette.
“He hated it,” Holden recalled. “He came home crying every single day, so we got him a tutor, and slowly but surely he progressed. He didn’t start to excel until the second grade, when he had a phenomenal teacher. He and Madame Houfaidi took a liking to each other.”
Holden said all three children are doing well in school now.
Language immersion “exercises that part of the brain that most of use don’t utilize,” he said.
He recognizes that Academie Lafayette isn’t perfect. Some students can’t handle language immersion and drop out.
“But it’s as close to perfect as you can get,” Holden said. “We love it.”
That is the kind of testimony that board member Zeller likes to hear. He wants to help extend the opportunity to more students and parents via the lower-grade expansion project and the institution of a high school program.
“Every year, we have to hold a lottery to allocate a limited number of kindergarten seats,” Zeller said. “We get 220 applications and can only take 120, so 100 families every year get their hearts broken.
“Most of them move out of the city and take their talents and tax dollars, and in many cases their businesses, with them.
“We have empty school buildings lying around, pulling down neighborhoods, when they could be converted to the positive side of the societal ledger. … We hope to broaden this vision and take this recipe and transfer it to other languages and start to build those schools a grade at a time. Think of the return on investment to the economy of having more and more high-performing, open-enrollment, desegregated public schools.”
Leaders from Academie Lafayette and Kansas City Public Schools are negotiating to create a high school teaching the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum that could open as soon as next fall at what is now the Southwest Early College Campus, 6512 Wornall Road.
Ray Weikal, a spokesman for the school district, said the partnership as currently proposed would be unique, in that half the students would be Kansas City Public Schools students who test in, a la Lincoln Prep, while Academie Lafayette graduates would be admitted presumptively.
“Part of what makes this proposal innovative is that our students … would remain our students,” Weikal said. “The state would consider them KCPS students, and the state funding that comes along with students would come through us.
“Once Academie Lafayette determines what their portion of seats is and what ours can be, then enrollment will be opened up to offer seats to students outside of either institution, whether they are now attending a charter school, a parochial school or what have you. They could take the exam, and if they are accepted, they would also be counted as KCPS students.
“It’s a very unique proposal. There is nothing like it elsewhere in Missouri that we know of. … The technical term is LEA for Local Education Agency. … And there has never been a school with two LEAs in the same high school like that.”
Weikal cautioned that the proposal is not a done deal, nor is it without controversy.
“A proposal to close down one of our high schools is a traumatic one,” Weikal said. “It’s by no means an easy process.”
If the plan comes to pass, Kansas City Public Schools will have to accommodate the remaining Southwest population — enrollment now stands at about 450 — elsewhere in the district.
Academie Lafayette stands to graduate about 60 students in the spring of 2015, so, as it stands now, the IB high school would start with a ninth-grade population of roughly 120.
Elimane Mbengue, a native of Senegal, became Lafayette’s head of school in the fall of 2012 after an educational career that took him to England and then to Portland, Ore.
“I fell in love with public education, as opposed to a private school where the tuition is $13,000 a year,” Mbengue said. “To educate a diverse population of students with rigor in an immersion program was something I wanted to do.”
Academie Lafayette was already succeeding when he arrived, Mbengue said.
But in addition to getting the expansion project off the ground, he believes he has had the opportunity to improve the governance of the school. He led the creation of the school’s first strategic plan. And he added a tracking program to help struggling students get the help they need earlier in the game.
Speaking of MAP test scores, Mbengue said that at Lafayette “we do better than the state, better than the district, of course, and better than any charter school in the state.”
He believes the immersion program “requires more cognitive effort, more flexibility. Research shows that students who learn a second language have more gray areas in their brains.”
The test scores reflect a number of other things, too, he said.
“There is stability in the teachers,” he said. “The student population attrition is less than 3 percent. … The teachers are very committed, and the parents are supportive. The environment is safe. There is limited disruption in the classroom. We strive to create an environment that is conducive to learning.”
Teachers who come from all over the world “bring something to the table,” Mbengue said, “not only the language experience, but the culture they share with the children.”
Mbengue said that when he arrived, he tried to build on the history of parental involvement by creating a School Council made up of teachers, parents and administrators that meets quarterly to discuss “anything about management.”
“If the issue is school uniforms, or lunch, or safety, or fundraising, I’d like to have the perspective from teachers, parents and administrators to come up with something,” he said.
Academie Lafayette has roughly 870 students in grades K through eight this year, and Mbengue looks forward to adding a high school program.
“We’re still discussing the start date and the admission requirements and also the diversity policy,” Mbengue said. “We want to make sure all the children are integrated in a harmonious way. … We want to form a real learning community.”
The Star’s Joe Robertson contributed to this report.
KCPS offers immersion, too
The Kansas City Public Schools system operates two foreign language-immersion schools.
▪ The Foreign Language Academy, 3450 Warwick Blvd., offers students in grades K through eight immersion in Spanish and French. Middle school students can choose from classes like computer applications, art, band, choir, debate and drill team. Find more, including a Signature School application form, at www.kcpublicschools.org/foreignlanguage, or call the school at 816-418-6000.
▪ Carver Dual Language Elementary School, 4600 Elmwood Ave., offers students in grades K through six instruction in core subjects — math, communication arts, science and social studies — taught in Spanish. Art, music, physical education, computer usage and library are taught in English. Find out more by visiting www.kcpublicschools.org/carver or by calling the school at 816-418-4925.