The French Immersion program has been a feather in the Holliston Public Schools’ cap since it began almost 30 years ago. The program is one of only two offered in the New England area, along with Milton’s immersion program.
The concept of French Immersion came about originally in Montreal, Canada in 1965. The French Immersion program came to Holliston in 1979.
“Dr. Placentino attended a superintendent’s meeting… and at that superintendent’s meeting there was a presentation on French Immersion in Montreal. It was started by Dr. Saint Lambert at McGill University and it was used in the Montreal schools because Montreal has a lot of the French and English [speakers]. And [Dr. Placentino] came back very enthused with this idea of what to do,” explained former Immersion teacher and Vice-Principal of Placentino, Mme. Terry Stewart.
To Dr. Placentino, French was the obvious choice of a language. “In this country, Spanish has evolved as more of a second language which is why I think you see more Spanish programs now than you would’ve…back when this started, French was the main second language and Mme Caccavale was fluent in French,” Mme. Stewart elaborated.
At this point, Dr. O’Connell, the assistant superintendent at the time, and Mme. Therese Caccavale then began to research the program in Canadian schools.
“When they were done laying the groundwork…they started the first French Immersion class in Holliston and Mme Caccavale was the first kindergarten teacher,” Mme. Stewart added.
Mme. Stewart continued, explaining how Mme. Caccavale taught any French classes that needed a teacher.
“There were several years where she taught and they hired someone for kindergarten then she taught first grade. They hired someone for the first grade then she taught second grade so as that went through, she taught through the years,” said Mme. Stewart.
After the program was fully established, Mme. Caccavale stayed on as a consultant to the program “as the curriculum coordinator who monitored what was going on, and she truly drove the program in the sense of making sure it followed what it was supposed to do,” said Mme. Stewart.
The Holliston program starts in kindergarten, different than Milton’s program which begins in the first grade, “Children’s brains are much more flexible at that age, they can begin to learn more things,” explained Mme. Stewart.
During first and second grade students are expected to speak little to no English. When students enter the third grade, the day is split half and half between English and French, and in middle school and high school it is reduced to just one period a day.
“In a way, it was [challenging] in the beginning. We learned history and math: almost all our subjects in French,” said freshman Lily Lines.
While to the students it may have seemed difficult, Mme. Stewart stressed the importance of learning a second language,“Bilingualism has always been definitely a brain strengthening technique… Learning that red has two different words that mean the same thing opens the children’s mind early on that there multiple choices rather than just things being a unilateral choice of the way to do things. So, it helps in maths and sciences when you learn to find different ways to solve problems,” she explained.
The immersion program maintains a relatively small class size across all the grades, from K-12. For example, the French Immersion class of 2020 consists of only 45 out of about 225 students total enrolled in the 9th grade. The modest-sized classroom allows the students to develop closer connections with their teachers and their peers.
“I think definitely from being with [the French kids] since kindergarten…, we’ve kind of become a little group that … we’ve grown up with. We’ve been in the same class with them for years, so we’ve known them all of our lives,” said freshman and French Immersion member Riley Marsden.
Lines agreed, “you develop a more personal relationship” with students and teachers.
Both Lines and Marsden agreed that another positive side of the rigorous program is that it instills a good work ethic among the students.
“It kind of gives you the sense to work hard because another language is definitely difficult, but if you work hard enough for it, then it becomes simple,” said Marsden.
“I have learned that you need to persevere despite difficulties,” Lines added.
The structure, style, and “the way [the program is] set up works better than just about anything else,”said Mme. Stewart. The program produces smart, capable students who are fully conversationally fluent by the third grade, Mme. Stewart said.
“ I just can’t see my life without the French Immersion,” said Marsden.