Caribou French and Spanish teacher Jonna Bouré poses with Boston's French consulate K-12 coordinator Noah Ouellette during his visit to Caribou High School. Credit: Courtesy of Jonna Boure

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou High School French and Spanish teacher Jonna Boure is on a mission to save French in northern Maine.

One of the thousands of people in Aroostook County who trace their heritage back to French Acadian immigrants, Boure has spent years trying to reclaim her ancestral language, which — like many people in her generation — she never learned.

Bilingual education programs could be an opportunity to revitalize the language among young people, and Boure said she believes that Caribou is positioned well to be the first Maine public school in decades to bring a French immersion program to life.

Fifty miles to the north, St. John Valley communities have significantly more French speakers, but Caribou’s larger population and growing school district might make it best-suited to host such a program, and Boure has begun campaigning to build one.

“There are other places in the state that have French but … I want to see something in The County,” Boure said. “It’s the same struggle that I’ve had [with French] in taking something back that I feel belongs to me.”

Following a visit to the Caribou school district last week from French Consulate K-12 Education Coordinator Noah Ouellette, Boure began surveying local leaders who she would like to recruit onto a committee to advocate for immersion programs in Aroostook County. The committee also would study what it would take to implement them.

Already she’s received interest from a handful of community members and teachers interested in serving on such a committee, and plans to work with the school board to figure out what it would take to establish a dual language program.

If Caribou were to pursue French immersion, Boure would be interested in starting small — maybe introducing a kindergarten and first-grade immersion program to expose children to the fundamentals of the language at a young age.

Currently, the district only has a French language program at the high school. Two years ago, the middle school lost its French classes and the most recent grades of Caribou French students began learning the language in their freshman year.

“It’s not enough time,” Boure said. “Psychological and educational testing shows that children are at the perfect age between birth and 7 and 8 years old to really grasp the concept of speaking more than one language. Not that it can’t be done, but children’s brains are much more pliable.”

Although young students in the district don’t have world language classes, Boure’s current class of AP French students is working on designing activities to introduce younger peers to French. It was an idea proposed by one of Boure’s students, and it gives her hope that there could be real community investment in expanding language programs in Caribou.

RSU 39 Superintendent Tim Doak is interested in the idea of bringing French immersion to Caribou, though if the city were to introduce a program it would likely be years out and require extensive research and preparation.

Doak helped steward Madawaska’s French immersion classes from 1995 to 2002 as the principal of the high school and then as school superintendent before grant funding for them ran out. His daughter is a graduate of Madawaska’s short-lived but award-winning French immersion program.

“It was preparing students for the future at a young age and it got them to be exposed to another language, which is critical,” Doak said. “I’ve always said that foreign languages and music are two areas that allow the brain to be more efficient.”

The number one priority, for Doak, would be building an immersion program that could really last.

That would mean finding high quality educators — difficult when French teachers have been on the DOE’s list of critical teacher shortages nearly every year since 1998. Once the district had teachers, Doak would want to be sure they were getting constant professional development.

When he oversaw Madawaska’s program, those teachers took trips to Quebec City to get hands-on practice with French speakers, and attended regular development programs through the University of Maine in Orono.

Doak’s other major requirement would be ensuring that the curriculum gave students a rigorous education in key areas like math, science and English language comprehension — equal to their traditional-classroom peers.

All of this means a lot of research and visits to schools with already-successful French Immersion programs. In Massachusetts, Brockton, Milton and Holliston public schools all have bilingual French programs at the elementary level, and both Doak and Boure said they’d be interested in touring those schools before pursuing a program in Caribou.

“I think the first step the school board should take is to talk about it themselves and be aware about what it’s about,” Doak said. “I would definitely encourage the board to put together [a] survey to put out to parents to see if there’s any interest in an immersion program.”

Whatever it takes, Bouré is committed to seeing the idea through. She’s taken inspiration from language reclamation programs like the Wabanaki Languages Certificate at the University of Southern Maine.

Although she never learned French from her family, she studied it relentlessly in school. When Boure had children of her own, she raised them speaking French in the household. Her daughter is studying abroad in France.

Fellow language teachers have told Boure that she’s an exception to the rule — that French in northern Maine has declined too far to be saved.

“I don’t accept that,” Boure said. “I don’t accept that we can’t take back our heritage in a positive way.”

Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.