I've always been impressed with the school system's French Immersion magnet program.
To walk into classrooms and watch elementary school students learning basic subjects, such as math and social studies in French is a pretty amazing sight. But here's a better reason to be proud of the program: Prince George's County fourth- and fifth-graders outscored their peers from across the nation in a prominent national French contest, Le Grand Concours de Francais.
More than 6,300 students from across the nation and a few foreign countries took the test, sponsored by the American Association of Teachers of French. Maryland had the second-highest rate of participants, with 520 students overall, who competed in various divisions based on the nature of their instruction in French.
For example, students in French Immersion programs competed only against students in similar programs and not against students who learn French as a foreign language. Only three Maryland elementary schools--Rogers Heights and Shadyside in Prince George's and a Baltimore County school--competed in the division for French Immersion students in grades 4 through 6. That division included about 1,000 students from 13 schools and nine different states, as well as a few privately tutored students.
Get this: Forty-nine of the top 100 students in the division were from Rogers Heights; an additional 15 were from Shadyside. That means 64 of the top 100 students were from Prince George's County.
Now that's the kind of performance residents want to see more often in Prince George's schools.
Another 33 of Shadyside's second- and third-graders ranked among the top 100 students in a separate division of the contest. It was the school's first time entering students that young in the contest. Rogers Heights did not enter students in that division.
In one part of the contest, the students listened to a tape of a person speaking in French and had to choose pictures on a work sheet that best described what was said. In another part, the students read text and answered questions.
Finally, the students were given sentences and had to apply correct French grammar. Students who did well on the initial parts of the exam progressed to the next stage, which included a taped oral interview in French.
Two Rogers Heights fifth-graders, Imogen Davidson White and Amelyne Molloy, were the top scorers overall in the division for fourth- and fifth-grade immersion students. Of a possible 71 points, Imogen scored 69.5; Amelyne, 69.2.
"It's wonderful to have children who excel and are so successful," said Jacquelyn O'Neill, principal at Rogers Heights for the last seven years. "The program is a wonderful program."
The French Immersion programs were set up at Rogers Heights and Shadyside 13 years ago as part of the county's efforts to desegregate the schools. The first class of French Immersion students just graduated from high school this year.
Of the 830 students at Rogers Heights, 390 are in the French Immersion program. About half of Shadyside's 514 students are in the program. At both schools, students begin in kindergarten taking all of their classes in French. In second grade, they take an English Language Arts class once a day. The only other English subjects they take are physical education and music.
Many of the teachers are from French-speaking nations, such as France, Senegal, Canada, Togo, Morocco, Belgium, Liberia, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon. So, at an early age, the students are exposed to accents from around the world.
"The teachers at Shadyside and our sister school, Rogers Heights, come from all over the world," Shadyside Principal Denise Lynch said. "Our children are taught in French from the beginning. Their teachers don't talk to them in English at all. They are immersed in the language."
That's just the kind of international education Ann Harris Davidson wanted for her daughter, Imogen Davidson White, when she enrolled the child in the program as a kindergarten student at Rogers Heights six years ago.
"I can't express how thrilled I am that she has had an opportunity to do a program such as this," said Davidson, who lives in Berwyn Heights. "These kids have the world at their feet because they have the gift of a second language."
Imogen will begin taking algebra and geometry next year at Greenbelt Middle School. This summer, the 10-year-old will travel alone to the south of France to visit an 18-year-old French student who stayed with the Davidsons as part of an informal student exchange two years ago.
For every parent who is disgusted with the public school system, there is another like Davidson, who is grateful for the education her daughter is receiving.
Many middle-class parents have begun fleeing the public schools because they are uncertain whether a system with so many troubles can adequately challenge its most academically gifted children. That's a question I'm not qualified to answer. But Davidson, an active volunteer in the school system, says Rogers Heights has done just that for her daughter.
"She is able to take a plane on her own in a foreign country and stay with a foreign family because of what the French Immersion program has given her," Davidson said of her daughter. "I think the program opens a world of opportunity to them."
To comment or suggest a story idea, feel free to write me at 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772; send me an e-mail at frazierL@washpost.com; or call me at 301-952-2083.
CAPTION: French Immersion students from Rogers Heights Elementary School outscored their peers in a prominent national French contest.