French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte greet fourth-graders Owen Sze (right) and Marissa Tyler after exiting a plane at Joint Base Andrews. The two students were among the first people to greet Macron and his wife upon their visit to the U.S. in April. (Courtesy of the Embassy of France in the U.S.)
French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte greet fourth-graders Owen Sze (right) and Marissa Tyler after exiting a plane at Joint Base Andrews. The two students were among the first people to greet Macron and his wife upon their visit to the U.S. in April. (Courtesy of the Embassy of France in the U.S.)

Marissa Tyler and Owen Sze stood near the bottom of airplane steps and held violet flowers at Joint Base Andrews in Prince George’s County as two of the first people to greet French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, during their visit to the U.S. last month.

During a two-week visit in France in February, Nicole Simms and Logan Fitzgerald beam about the cuisine they devoured, including fish nuggets, grilled salmon, rotisserie chicken and fries.

All four of these county students study the French language and culture which allows them to learn and think globally.

Besides France, the French dialect serves as a primary and secondary language in other nations such as Haiti, Canada and several countries in West and Central Africa.

The French Embassy acclaims French behind English as the second most taught language in the world.

“My mom makes this valid argument that Spanish is a great language to learn, but once you go past this hemisphere the only country that speaks Spanish is Spain,” Fitzgerald, an 18-year-old senior at Central High School in Capitol Heights. “When I go back to France, I can speak my native tongue in English … but I can also cohort with other people within the nation.”

The tie that binds these four students together stems from the county’s French Immersion program, which will complete its 33rd year when the school year ends next month.

Although students can learn up to 12 languages that include sign language, Italian and Latin, immersion programs are designed for students to incorporate that language into the curriculum.

Parents apply for students to enroll in the program in kindergarten, but those who apply entering first grade through eighth will be tested on knowledge of the language based on grade level.

For instance, Tyler and Sze are fourth-grade students at Maya Angelou French Immersion School in Temple Hills who read, write and listen to daily announcements and academics in French.

The 503 students are incorporated into the school’s international baccalaureate primary years programme, which focuses on critical thinking for children ages 3 to 12 based on six principles:

• Who we are;

• Where we are in place and time;

• How we express ourselves;

• How the world works;

• How we organize ourselves; and

• Sharing the planet.

According to the IB organization website, 109 countries teach this curriculum.

Besides Maya Angelou, the other immersion program for 710 children enrolled in Kindergarten through eighth grade attend Dora Kennedy in Greenbelt.

Those students can matriculate for advanced French immersion at Central, the county’s only high school that offers the program with currently 61 students.

Carmen Henninger, an immersion instructional specialist with the school system, said students like Simms and Fitzgerald passed assessments that rewards them with not only a high school diploma but also a state Department of Education Seal of Biliteracy.

Henninger said the level of proficiency to receive bilingual honors required equals the certification of a World Language teacher.

“Immersion affords students the opportunity to be bilingual, bi-literate [and] global citizens who are able to use the language and compete in the global workforce,” she said.

‘I Started Bawling’

On April 23, Tyler and Sze wore their best attire to greet the French president to begin his three-day state visit. Tyler sported a red and black floral dress, black shirt and black sweater. Sze complimented his classmate with a black suit and striped tie.

Tyler recalled her first words to Macron to begin his three-day state visit to America: “Bonjour. Bienvenue Aux Etats-Unis. On vous souhaite une bonne voyage.” English translation: “Hello. Welcome to the United States. I hope you had a great flight.”

About 90,000 viewers on Twitter “@PGCPSImmersion” watched a 10-minute video of Macron that includes handshakes, hugs and a press briefing in English and French.

“I was nervous, but I know how to keep calm under pressure when I’m nervous,” Tyler, 10, said during an interview at her school. “When I met the [French] ambassador, I started bawling. It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

The dozens of politicians, military personnel and onlookers gathered slightly shook Sze, 9.

“It was a little scary and interesting at the same time,” he said. “I was honored, but I know I can’t do this every day.”

Both students learned a French custom when people greet each other: kisses on both cheeks, which Macron and his wife planted on them.

Maya Angelou Principal Martha Kristy said certain areas of France people welcome one another with three kisses.

The fourth-graders don’t just excel in the classroom as honor roll students. Besides learning French and playing the violin, Sze also studies Chinese and Cantonese. His parents are of Asian descent.

Tyler’s a first-degree black belt in Taekwondo and a junior Girl Scout.

“Even doing all this stuff, I think [French] will help me out in the future,” she said.

Future Leaders

Simms and Fitzgerald also attended Maya Angelou several years ago when named the John Hanson Montessori school now located in Oxon Hill.

The honor roll students sought to use French to expand their horizons, which made this school year special.

They interacted with exchange students from France who visited the U.S. in October.

During their two-week service learning project in France with a few other students from the D.C. area, they stayed in Paris for one week and stayed with a French family in the city of Toulouse.

A few of the people, sites and tastes they said they encountered:

• French candy more edible, natural and less sweet than in America.

• French and American diplomats and politicians at the French National Assembly, the equivalent to the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill.

• Toured an immigration museum and read how Black soldiers helped to liberate the country.

Simms, a 17-year-old junior at Central High School, said she and a few other students had a chance to see the “Arc De Triomphe,” or “Arc of Triumph,” a monument along a main thoroughfare in Paris to honor all French men and women who fought in the various wars.

“It was actually pretty cool being there because we weren’t supposed to be there at that time,” she said. “We were waiting on everybody to come back from shopping.”

Because Simms and Fitzgerald received recognition as youth ambassadors by the State Department, they received an invitation to the White House on April 24 when the French president spoke on the lawn. About 90 students from Maya Angelou that included Tyler and Sze also received an invitation to attend.

“I wanted to go inside, but being there was cool,” said Simms, who plans to attend college in another year and study international affairs and minor in French. She aspires to become a French ambassador.

Fitzgerald will attend Prince George’s Community College in the fall and then transfer to the University of Maryland in College Park. He plans to study as a double major in computer engineering and French. He wants to open a technology business and work with clients in America, France and Japan.

“I’m so proud of what they are doing here and what they have accomplished,” said Aminatou Sounna, the French Immersion program coordinator at Central born in Niger. “I’m so proud of them using the French language. Nicole and Logan will succeed.”

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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