Can a French immersion school be a viable enterprise in the Tampa Bay area? A native of France and his American spouse, behind a $2 million investment, want to find out.
With its robust and growing Cuban, Latin American and South American cultural influences, Florida is a state where Spanish could easily be considered a second language worth knowing.
So why, then, are two educators-turned-entrepreneurs starting a French immersion school in St. Petersburg?
“There’s research that shows that if you're bilingual, you're often sought after to serve on boards of organizations because when you speak more than one language, your mind is already set up to approach problems from different angles,” says Beth LeBihan, who along with her husband, Willy, a native of Quimper, France, founded a French immersion school 17 years ago in Maine. They hope to replicate that feat in St. Pete. “There are a lot of advantages [to bilingual education] besides being bilingual. The effects on the brain are long lasting and sometimes unexpected.”
Beth LeBihan, 49, is American by birth and met Willy, 51, when they were both studying abroad in Ireland. They fell in love, got married and made their home in Beth’s home state of Maine.
Beth LeBihan majored in early childhood education at the University of Maine at Farmington, and then earned her master’s degree in that subject through the University of Phoenix. During the course of her studies, she became enamored with the French approach to educating children, and her relationship with Willy only served to cement that interest.
Willy LeBihan’s background is in geology and geophysics, but he says his teaching undergraduates while in graduate school was so enjoyable he decided to pursue a career in education. In 2002, the couple decided to open a French immersion school in South Freeport, Maine, just north of Portland and about a three-hour drive from Quebec, where French is the dominant language.
But opening a school involves much more than finding a suitable building and hiring teachers and staff. The accreditation process can take three to five years, and county and state governments must sign off. In the case of the LeBihan’s school, accreditation must also be received from the government of France for the institution to be considered part of the 50-member network of French immersion schools nationwide.
“One of the wonderful things about the French education system, and because we’ve bought into it and fully follow the French national curriculum, is that it is consistent everywhere,” says Willy LeBihan. “So if you are running a business and you're in San Diego and then you need to move to Florida for five years for your job, your child can go directly into a French school and pick up right where he or she was and keep going.”
'It’s like having an international airport — it brings a nice cachet to the area. It says we aren’t just a small village. — Isis Delomez, St. Petersburg
AUTHENTICITY IS KEY
The French American School of Tampa Bay will be at 2100 62nd Ave. N., in St. Petersburg — just east of Interstate 275. The LeBihans are spending about $2 million of their own money to buy the building, renovate it, construct a new playground and order educational materials directly from French suppliers.
“All of the supplies will come directly from France,” says Willy LeBihan. “It has to be authentic. When the parents of our students walk in, they will want to feel like they are in a real French school.”
Willy LeBihan says the clientele he and his wife hope to attract in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area include children of international executives, diplomats, military personnel and other highly educated and experienced people. The couple say they have already fielded calls from French companies looking to expand to the Tampa Bay region, as well as representatives from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
“The people who will be checking out this building, they have seen it all,” he says. “The customers we are targeting know exactly what they want.”
The LeBihans are confident that when the school opens in September, their hard work will have paid off and the school’s enrollment will be at the level they need to hit their revenue goal. At the school in Maine, which they still operate, enrollment fluctuates between 65 and 85 students. They are aiming for at least 100 in St. Pete.
In Maine, says Beth LeBihan, “the population is much smaller and the public schools are very good. In Florida, a lot more people are looking for private education.”
Tuition will range from $6,500 to $13,500 per year. “We are going to need cash flow,” says Willy LeBihan, “so we hope to enroll 50-60 students right away.”
That will require top-notch teachers, he adds, which is why embarking on the accreditation process is critical.
“Not everybody can afford this education — we are fully aware of that,” he says. “So getting accreditation is crucial. We’ve done this before, so it’s not like we don’t know what we are doing. But it’s a lot of work; it’s all in the details. We have hired two marketing people already, so Beth and I can focus on the quality of the curriculum and getting accreditation as fast as possible.”
The LeBihans have already received the blessing of the Mission laïque française, a French nonprofit founded in 1902 that promotes French language and culture worldwide via schools in 47 different countries. The government of France has also proved receptive to the couple’s new venture.
“We have already been in touch with the ambassador in Washington,” Willy LeBihan says. “They really want this school and are going to help us.”
Some Tampa Bay Francophone businesspeople view the impending arrival of a French immersion as a boon to the region. France is already the area’s fourth-largest foreign investor — behind the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany — and Tampa International Airport offers daily flights to Paris. A French immersion school would go a long way toward boosting the number of French speaking business service professionals — such as lawyers, CPAs and bankers — in the area, which in turn would lure even more Francophone investment, officials say.
Consider Isabelle Blainey, who hails from Lyon, France, but moved to the United States in 1996. She spent three years in New York City before heading south, eventually winding up in the Clearwater-Dunedin area, where she worked from 2003 to 2007 as director of the Clearwater Convention Center. Blainey, who now lives in South Tampa and works in the yacht sales and charter industry, says a French immersion school in town should be an easy sell.
“I think 50-60 students shouldn’t be hard to reach,” she says. “I have a lot of friends who have younger children and would love to put them in a school where they can learn a second language early on. Tampa has a very affluent population that is very focused on education. People will sometimes move to specific areas to enroll kids in the school they want.”
Blainey says the area’s population of French-speaking people is relatively small — about 3,000 to 4,000 people — especially compared to Miami, which has more than 30,000 French ex-pats. That, she fears, could pose a problem when it comes to finding qualified teachers and staff for a French immersion school. On the flip side, she believes the region’s weather, amenities and low cost of living should help the LeBihans recruit highly skilled educators from France, other French-speaking countries and elsewhere in the United States.
Isis Delomez, a St. Petersburg-based interior designer and real estate agent, is another French ex-pat who looks forward to having a French immersion school in the area — especially because her 15-month-old child will soon be ready for preschool. Delomez, 40, moved to the United States at age 23 and says she’d like her son to be educated in the French system, like she was until enrolling at St. Petersburg College. She believes a bilingual education will give him a better head start in life.
“I was first in my class at SPC, and I was never first in my class in France,” she says. “And English was my second language — I was completely baffled. I’m super paranoid about what type of school my son is going to go to.”
Delomez’s paranoia about Florida’s public school system ran so deep she says she’d been mulling a move to Manhattan, where there's a good, publicly funded French immersion school. Now, she’s reconsidering her options.
“I’m excited about [the LeBihans’ school],” she says. “It’s like having an international airport — it brings a nice cachet to the area. It says we aren’t just a small village. If you don’t have high-scale education you don’t attract high-scale people, and I’m not just talking about people with money. It just makes everything more attractive.”
(This story was updated to reflect the correct annual tuition figure.)