Monrovia does not boast anything like the Eiffel Tower. Myrtle Avenue can hardly be compared to the Champs Elysees. The lights of the San Gabriel Valley do not shine as brightly as Paris by night.
But starting in September, Monrovia will pick up a touch of savoir-faire in the form of an authentic French school--the Lycee International de Los Angeles--which is readying a campus on Palm Avenue.
"There appears to be quite a French-speaking community (in the San Gabriel Valley). We've been getting calls for years from the Pasadena, Arcadia and Monrovia area asking us to open a school here," said Monique Mickos, founder of the lycee's parent school, based in Van Nuys.
Francine M. Filhes is a Parisian educator who will be the principal of the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school on the property of the United Methodist Church. The school is scheduled to open Sept. 11 in classrooms recently abandoned when the church's day-care center closed.
"Here will be the kindergarten. Of course, we have to have some imagination," Filhes said on a recent tour of the campus, which is being remodeled. "I think it's a nice beginning."
Filhes, who speaks in a thick French accent, has taught in French schools around the globe. Classical French education--emphasizing academics, languages and discipline--is attracting more and more Americans, she said.
"There are very few electives. There is no question you have to take solid academic subjects, and the program is very rigorous. Once you've had a European education, you're prepared for anything," Filhes said.
Mickos, a native of France who has lived in the United States for 30 years, started the program with five students in 1978. Since then, it has expanded to 225 students at campuses in Van Nuys, Tarzana and Huntington Beach. The Monrovia site has 18 students enrolled for the fall, and a fifth campus is planned in the Palos Verdes Peninsula area, Mickos said.
"There's something neat about the French system," Mickos said. "It's appealing because along with the academics the students learn study habits, how to behave, concentration and respect for their elders."
The school expects to attract students from French-speaking families, as well as English-speaking children whose parents want them to learn another language. Explaining why she chose to establish the school in Monrovia, Mickos said several professors at Caltech in nearby Pasadena have expressed an interest in sending their children to the lycee.
The little things, such as teaching the class to stand when an adult enters the room, or grading based on neatness, organization and penmanship, are sometimes hard for older students to adapt to when they come from public schools, Filhes said.
"We teach cursive writing in the first grade and we use ink (pens) early. There's an emphasis on details that they are not used to."
For years, parents fed up with problems in the public school system have turned to private schools for their children's education, said Fred Fernandez, a consultant on non-public schools for the California Department of Education. There are 1,271 private schools and 205,000 private-school students in Los Angeles County, representing about 11% of the school-age population, he said.
Fred Dobb, the department's consultant on foreign languages and international studies, said several French schools exist in California, including a handful in the San Francisco Bay Area and two in Los Angeles--Mickos' school and the Lycee Francais in West Los Angeles.
"Among private schools in general, there's a real commitment to foreign language. Parents are willing to pay for it, especially since elementary (public) school kids do not get exposed to languages," Dobb said.
Tuition for Mickos' schools runs from $3,525 a year for kindergarten to $3,775 for sixth grade, up to $5,000 a year for 12th grade in the schools that go that high. The fees include books, materials and after-school care for students who have working parents.
The presence of the French schools in California may be surprising, but it's not hard to explain, Dobb said. "It's snob appeal, really."
There is a German-American school in Menlo Park, he added, and a burgeoning number of schools that teach languages such as Japanese, Korean and Armenian and are aimed mostly at the children of international businessmen who are living in California for a short time.
The private-school curriculum is not reviewed by state authorities, and most private schools do not submit their students' scores to the state, so their academic standards cannot be compared to those of public schools, Fernandez said. But Mickos said most parents believe that their children are getting a better education in the French system.
"It's unbelievable, the difference in the curriculum between this and public school," said Debbie Zimmerly, whose 13-year-old daughter, Renette McLellan, attends the Lycee International's Van Nuys campus. "The books come from France, and I've shown them to friends of mine who have Ph.D.s and they can't believe the high level she's already at."
Beginning in junior high, the students are required to take three languages--English, Latin and Greek or Spanish, Mickos said. Since French is the first language of the school, it does not count toward fulfilling the foreign-language requirement.
McLellan enrolled in the school three years ago without knowing a word of French. Although it was intimidating, she said, she thrived in a French as a Second Language class and can now comfortably follow physiology, geography, history and biology lessons taught in French, although she cannot speak it fluently.
Mickos said the kindergarten and lower elementary school grades are taught mostly in French so that children who do not speak French at home are completely bilingual by about the fourth grade.
The kindergarten classes begin reading English first, then start reading and writing in French in first grade.
"To the children it's like a game," Filhes said. "They become fluent in no time."
About 30% of the student population is French, and many of the rest are from families who speak French, such as natives of Lebanon, Belgium, Vietnam and parts of Africa, Mickos said. "They feel at home with us."
Jean-Claude Terrac, cultural attache at the French Consulate in Beverly Hills, said the French government lends support and guidance to the Lycee International, as it does to the more than 350 French schools all over the world. French schools were originally founded to serve the children of members of the French diplomatic corps, he said, and now exist primarily to keep the French language alive.
Terrac said there are 70,000 French nationals and 600,000 French-speakers in Los Angeles County. "All French love the language," he said. "We do the best to preserve and develop it."
Mickos agreed: "We hope, ultimately, to make Francophiles of these students. We hope they will always have a soft spot for the language."