COLUMBIA — Crowded around a circular blue rug in the lower level of Joelle Quoirin’s home, 10 preschoolers sing a greeting song: “Bonjour, bonjour les amis. Allons tous vite au tapis.”
“Hello, hello, friends,” they sing. “Let’s all go quickly to the rug.”
No, these children are not native French speakers, and La Petite Ecole is not a typical preschool. Here, students learn the basic academics, such as days of the week and months of the year, but in French. The teachers speak only French around the children. It’s language immersion for 3- to 6-year-olds.
Quoirin came up with the idea for a French immersion preschool as a graduate student at MU in the mid 1990s. This idea became a plan when she worked at another La Petite Ecole in Charlottesville, Va. After returning to Columbia, she decided to open a nonprofit preschool in the lower level of her home; it has been transformed into a place of early learning, complete with finger-painted pictures of Goldilocks, a corner for Legos, dress up and a French library.
The school opened in the fall of 2005 with seven students. Now, the school has 19 students — nine in the morning class and 10 in the afternoon class. The cost for an academic year at La Petite Ecole is $3,750.
With the growing interest, Quoirin is expanding. La Petite Ecole will move this summer to Fairview Community of Christ, 1111 S. Fairview Road.
Quoirin sat down recently to answer questions about her little school.
Q. How did you come up with the idea to open a French immersion school in Columbia?
A. My husband and I met as graduate students at MU and moved to Charlottesville, Va., and I taught at La Petite there. If it hadn’t been for that opportunity I wouldn’t have been able to put it all together. We were fortunate to come back to this town, and I knew there was no such thing as an immersion school here. In August of 2004, I spent a year getting everything ready and the school started in Fall of 2005 with seven children. I’ve always had this idea. An old friend found me again because of the school and she said, “I’m so glad you realized your dream.” I hadn’t seen her in 15 years.
Q. What are the main reasons for the move?
A. There are two reasons why we’re moving. One: We need to expand because demand is such that we want to accommodate those who wish to enroll. Two: I think it will serve to let the community know that we are a school and not a day care. We’re teaching the children. I think it will raise public awareness.
Q. When did you decide to make the move?
A. Last year we negotiated a contract with Fairview Community of Christ, but we pulled back because we weren’t sure if we had enough children to justify the expense. This year, just by keeping the current families we would be full and we had 20 applications waiting. Because of the residential setting we can only welcome 10 children enrolled at a time. We recontacted the church and they were clear about still wanting us to come. It works out well because the school operates Monday through Friday and the church is mainly used on the weekends.
Q. What is your vision for the new school?
A. Next year we want to have two morning classes for ages 3 and 4 in hopes of the following year expanding the afternoon class or adding first- and second-graders. The interest in the elementary age is there. We want to provide this opportunity to other children. My goal is to make this a very high quality environment with high quality teachers and resources.
Q. Why do you think it’s so important for young children to learn a second language?
A. The long-term benefits won’t go away. Bilingual kids outperform other kids on tests and become much more aware of language. They understand how language works as a system. They’re better speakers of their own language. Ultimately, it’s not about learning French. It’s about developing neurological connections, which in my opinion is the most important reason to support choosing this environment.