Monday, October 6, 2008

French American International School

Reviewed by Thanh

You should consider this school if you're looking for a place with:
a core foundation of language immersion via French; emphasis on broadening children’s minds to a truly global horizon, very structured curriculum (based on French curriculum established by the French Ministry of Education, that ultimately prepares students to pass the difficult Baccalaureat), a very involved parental community, amazing extracurricular activities at each grade beginning with 1st (e.g., overnight camping in Santa Cruz Mountains, snorkeling on Catalina Island, even two week trip for French exchange in 5th grade), an amazing renovated IT lab and library setting, a very urban school setting located right next to the symphony and opera.

The Facts
Web site:
School tours: by appointment
Location: 150 Oak Street, Civic Center
Grades: PreK-12
Start time: 8:20 a.m.
Kindergarten size: 20 students, one class. There are 3 pre-K and 4 K classes.
Average class size lower school, K–5: 22, one class per grade
Average class size middle school, 6–8: don’t know
Total student body: 867 students (remember, preK-12)
Tuition: $18,970 (lower school), $20,510 (middle school)
Financial aid: Financial Aid assistance is awarded on the basis of need and the potential family contribution as reported by School and Student Services for Financial Aid.
Before- and after-school program: School run enrichment program 7:30am- 6:15pm; $12.50/hour (drop-in use), $8.50/hour (regular but not necessarily full-time use), $2,750/year (full-time use) – enrichment programs in music (based on Orff philosophy and taught in French), movements, sports, arts/crafts and computers
Language: 80% French instruction until 4th grade, 50% in 5th and 6th grade, then 70% 7th and 8th.

Highlights: Each year, students in grades 1 to 5 are involved in an overnight outdoor education program which complements and enriches their studies in the classroom:
• 1st and 2nd graders experience a hands-on, experiential program at a nature camp for three days
• 3rd graders expand their knowledge of California History by spending three days in the gold country studying Native American cultures;
• 4th graders spend five days at the Headlands Institute at Marin Headlands in an environmental education program;
• 5th graders culminate their lower school bilingual education with an exchange trip to France for up to two weeks.

Thanh’s impressions
In so many ways, French American represents one of the main reasons why I would imagine many of us have decided to stay in San Francisco – a community that actively cultivates a global perspective, educating children in a thorough curriculum that will allow them to be true world citizens.

The beginning of the tour was parent-led and then ended with an intimate group discussion with Andrew Brown, the Director of Admissions for the Lower School.

The school’s mission is to provide a foundation of academic rigor and diversity, to prepare students for a world in which the ability to think critically and to communicate across cultures is of “paramount importance.”

In the pre-K class we observed 21 kids, who had only been there for 5 weeks, sitting in circle with the teacher and assistant discussing in French “compote de pommes” (applesauce). The teacher asked the students the ingredients. About 60% offered the ingredients in French, pommes, l’eau, etc. and 40% offered them in English. If an English word was offered, the teacher would review the French words – so for instance, they all learned that the word for cinnamon was “cannelle.” There was no pressure to “know the right word” – it was clear that this was to help expand and broaden and not “get it right.” They sang two songs in French, with the asst. teacher playing guitar and the primary teacher playing the flute – one song taught them the different French words for the days of the week. And all kids seem to know the song by heart. After 5 weeks, that was pretty impressive! In the K class we observed, we saw 22 kids sitting on the ground in a circle, getting ready for class. The kids were well behaved, eager and clearly looking forward to what was to come next. At the moment we were observing, the teacher was going over some expectations for the class and provided instruction in French and repeating in English for emphasis. About half the kids in K come from the pre-K, so if you’re child starts kindergarten, without knowing French, I wouldn’t be worried. I should note that all teachers are native French speakers.

We viewed a 3rd grade class and saw a bit of a 4th grade class. In my quick observation, I believe it looked like Pre-K to 3rd grade classrooms had intimate group tables, and starting in 4th grade, each student got individual desks. We saw a great computer lab just for the Pre-K to 3rd grade set, a great gymnasium (with apparently an impressive middle school girls’ basketball team), a wonderful, intimate library dedicated just for K to 3rd grade, with what looked like to full-time librarians just for that one library! There was a nice playground for Pre-K and 1st graders, and across the street and nice size outdoor basketball court and mini-playground for 2nd and 3rd graders. We entered into a very impressive art studio for the Lower School with an art teacher with her Masters in Fine Arts preparing for her next class and an impressive offering of different media offered to the students. The physical tour ended up on the 6th floor in the high school, with a newly renovated IT lab and a truly (truly) impressive library and view of SF to kill for.

Homework at French American starts in 1st grade, with no homework on the weekends up until 5th grade. Apparently, starting in 4th or 5th grade, homework becomes quite important. No matter where you fall down on the homework debate, I will say the fact that French American kids are reading The Odyssey (in French) by the time they are in 8th grade, speaks volumes for the level of academic excellence the school strives for. I could be wrong, but I swear, I didn’t read The Odyssey until I was a sophomore in high school.

The tour ended up at the Admissions office with Andrew Brown, the Admissions Director for the Lower School. It was a very different and intimate experience than I have experienced on other tours. We were served tea and were asked to speak first about ourselves and backgrounds and then shoot away at any questions we had. It was a nice setting and Andrew seemed genuinely interested in getting to know about the parents and why they were interested in French American. And for me, that fit in to the background of a school that is interested educating global citizens. Before you get the idea that you have to have some exotic background to fit in – I don’t think that is the case. 70% of French American kids come from families who do not speak French at home. But I do get the feeling that based on their mission, the school looks to families who are committed to reinforcing their children with a global perspective.

One point I would bring up here is the question of the relevancy of the French language. It seems that by 6th grade all students are completely and fully fluent in French, orally and written. One of my husband’s primary questions was the relevancy of learning French and how useful that would that be going forward. After a morning at French American, I walk away with the following perspective: learning another language when you are young provides you with an inherent awareness and appreciation of a broader set of cultures, language and context of all kinds. And if, as parent, that falls on top of a priority list, this school is worth looking at. Looking at the kids as we toured the school from Pre-K through to the high school, I observed kids who were mature and confident. Because French American goes through 12th, it’s a lot to take in for most parents just focused on kindergarten. But I would imagine that if your child likes structure, is bookish - and verbally confident – along with being very bright-eyed and inquisitive – he or she would do very well at French American.


  1. How is French American different from the Lycee?

  2. The Lycee only provides financial aid through the French gov't, so you have to be French to get aide.

    As a result, teh school feels more like a French public school in the middle of San Francisco.

    FAIS feels less French, but more international and more diverse in every way.

  3. Before you get caught up with the 'global' aspect, think smaller picture. There are a lot of pk and k kids on the playground at the same time. FAIS believes in self-regulation, meaning kids fend for themselves in cases of conflict.

    Not what I consider an intimate primary school experience, especially for being a private school.

    Ask deeper questions before falling in love with the idea of being oh-so-cultural in SF via FAIS.

  4. People who go to FAIS that aren't of French or European descent were the cool people in their lives before having kids - trying to keep their cool factor by saying they go to FAIS. "Yeah, my kid speaks French."

    Big deal.

  5. At the other extreme are private schools that micro-manage kids' friendships and interactions on the playground.

    There has got to be a happy medium.

    What were playgrounds like when you were growing up?

    Were there kids-only spaces in your life where you could play with minimal supervision?

    Kids these days get very little of the freedom we had as kids....

  6. I know a number of families with kids at FAIS/IHS though the ones I know have older kids (middle and high schoolers) so I don't have a sense of the primary school. I've been impressed by most of the kids I know there (smart, creative and interesting teenagers, comfortable around adults). They are not without their behavioral problems.

    At the upper grades they offer the IB option which I think is attractive for people who may have ties to international, maybe one parent grew up outside the US and are interested in (possibly) having their child go to school overseas.

    I can't imagine planning ahead for high school (or college), maybe some have that long view in mind.

  7. At these private schools with only one K class, do parents ever ask how many siblings of each gender are expected to apply this fall? 22 kids = 11 girls + 11 boys. It's easy to imagine at least half of those spots going to siblings in any given year, plus I've heard rumors of a "girl boom" in very recent years reducing the numbers of openings even further for new girls. Will a school tell you how many spots, realistically, will actually be open for new families? I know they can't predict who might move away, etc, and I would think it's in their interest not to disclose information that might reduce their applicant pool. But as a parent, I would find it helpful to know what my odds might really be.

  8. Just to disspell the misinformation posted about the Lycee, since my kids go there. You can get a scholarship if you aren't French, but you have to make very little money. Secondly, the other main difference is that it's two-way immersion, meaning at least half the kids are French speaking, whereas at FAIS most kids don't speak French going in. (My younger one just started in the first year of pre-k and his class has 15 French speakers and five non-French speakers.) In fact, there are several people at the Lycee who transferred their kids into the Lycee from FAIS because their kids weren't learning much French at FAIS. At the Lycee, there is five hours of English instruction per week in the lower grades, the rest is all French immersion. Third, it's hardly like a French public school. They do teach the French public school curriculum, which FAIS does as well, but the similarities with French public school stop there. (My kid went to one in Paris.) The Lycee has 15-18 kids per class (my 1st grader has 15 kids in his class this year, 16 in his K class last year) instead of 35 like in France! And the K class has TWO teachers at all times. And they bake organic bread in the classroom and visit recycling centers etc, so it's pretty San Francisco-fied...
    Lastly, it's a bit cheaper at 15K.
    It's perhaps true that the Lycee is more "French" than FAIS, because there are so many French families there.

    Just the facts madame

  9. Apply for PK at FAIS, everyone gets in! They have 3 PK and 4 K.

  10. The Lycee looks a lot more white than FAIS... and I only know of one family *without* a French parent who has gotten financial aid there.

    Are you sure about your facts?

    There is a much higher percentage of non-French families receiving financial aid at FAIS.

  11. FAIS is a great school.

    But Andrew the head guy is not. He's a champeen bs artist. Don't believe anything he says, and you'll be fine.

  12. Head guy? He's just the admissions director (and a FAIS parent). Chill.

  13. I asked about the Lycee early on and was told that kids who aren't from French-speaking families are at a severe academic and social disadvantage; the school climate doesn't make an effort to help them.

  14. I'm confused by some of the stats you give. You wrote:
    "Kindergarten size: 20 students, one class. There are 3 pre-K and 4 K classes.
    Average class size lower school, K–5: 22, one class per grade"
    If there are three pre-K classess and four K-classes, but only one class per grade what happens to the students from those multiple classes after Kindergarten?

  15. There are 3 pk at about 20 kids each, then 4 k classes, so if you apply to K (assuming all pk move up) there are only 20 spots avail at kindergarten. then there are that many as you move up per grade.

    At any given time with pk and k kids on the playground, thats a big number. Be sure to check out aftercare on the playground. Its chaos!

  16. 10:35pm, Brown is the admissions director, yes, and everything out of his mouth is a lie. To me at least. He tells people they are definitely going to be admitted (they aren't), he tells other people they will have financial aid (they don't), he makes promises left and right and has a bad reputation for not telling the truth. I speak from experience as a parent of kids in that school, and as a friend of applicants who got led up the primrose path. Sometimes we joke that he's balancing the budget by getting families to spend the bucks to apply when he knows they have no intention of getting in. Sorry to vent, but you said "chill" and in fact, as I simply said, it's a factor in my disgust with the school. I've paid over six figures, and this guy is out there giving the school a bad name. I won't chill. People should know.

  17. 12:30 -- Why don't you tell us more about your overall experience at FAIS? Our interactions with Brown shouldn't be that extensive once we're in, right? So we shouldn't judge the school -- and what our child's experience might be -- based on an individual who will have little to no interaction with our children.

  18. But it's good to know someone might lie to you during the process. I appreciate the information.

  19. I have friends who've been there a couple years and have yet to meet the headmaster. Heard is is not at all accessible.

  20. Well, the headmaster does oversee the whole school, PK - 12th.

    How accessible is the Lower School Head?

  21. We're visiting FAIS tomorrow a.m.

    What should we be looking out for?

  22. hello? havent you read all the comments here?

  23. To: October 7, 2008 9:43 AM

    Sorry for the confusion. That's my fault. What I was trying to say was that there are 20 kids for each of the 4 K classes. But overall, the stat I was given that for the entire lower school there is an average of 22/kids/class. I am assuming that it accounts for the fact that as they get older, there are more kids per class. (I don't know numbers for older kids/class).

    Also, just slight caveat - I do my best to take copious, extensive notes, sometimes at the expense of my handwriting. So I am the first to say, that whatever facts I throw out are what I was furiously writing at the time. My husband and I have done 6 tours (with what seems like a million more to go) in last week alone, so frankly it all starts fusing together. And my notes are the only real good reference point for me, and if I wrote it down wrong, heaven help me, I won't be able to recall the actual number.

    Just a side note, boy, touring is a full time job. We both happen to work, so the logistics of this is taking a real toll.

    - Thanh

  24. Does anybody know if they would accept an applicant for first grade who has not yet been in a French immersion environment? Just wondering . . .

  25. I'm the slightly disgruntled parent from earlier in the thread. I cannot argue with my children's education. At FAIS, it's spectacular. Not only are our two kids bilingual, the older one is already starting Mandarin.

    But if I had to do it over again, I would value my children's ability to make friends, enjoy their lives, have a supportive community, and thrive as confident beings. None of this has happened at FAIS.

    The school is full of bullies, mean girls, cliques, and if you're not part of it, too bad. The kids are actually cruel to one another. The administration and the teachers don't do enough to combat it. Nobody socializes. The kids are stressed. And at the end of the day, I think the Lycee would have been better if I wanted my children to speak a more perfect French.

    It's a pressure cooker. And live through the ordeal of writing those checks every year. I earn over $150,000 per year, which you'd think would make me comfortable. Well, at the end of the day, I think it's costing me $30,000 per child, so over half my after tax income goes to FAIS. $60,000. Fees, trips, stuff, it just adds up.

    Nothing I say or want falls on open ears. The administration is distant and does what they want. No matter what, they know best. They take your kid and do what they want with him. That's the deal.

    If I had to do it over again, I would probably save FAIS for high school, and send my child to a good public school if I could be so fortunate as to get in. We're in the middle school zone now, so that's no longer a possibility. I would do Mandarin immersion, but since I speak French, we chose French. But come to think of it, I'm not sure that's true, that I'd send them there to high school, as I'm thinking of pulling them out anyway.

    I'd rather them grow into real people, by going to Lick Wilmberding, St. Ignatius, Lowell, or Anytown High School. I'm afraid I've taken too much of their playful youth by demanding they measure up to some crazy European standard. A pressure cooker.

    Normally when parents bitch and moan, it's their kid who is having the troubles. Mine do fine at FAIS. It's the other kids and the other families who concern me.

    Immersion is a great idea, but happy normal kids are a better one.

  26. Immersion per se is not the problem. The old-fashioned pedagogy is.

  27. I'm curious how FAIS and Lycee view each other.

  28. I have actually heard that FAIS is relaxed and mellow compared to adjacent CAIS. I was surprised to hear the harsh comments by anonymous October 7, 2008 4:47 PM. I think you need to take comments like these with a grain of salt. There are unhappy people everywhere. Also, it's all about fit. What might be the right fit for one family is a bad fit for another. Not everyone fits into French culture. Not everyone likes Paris--but a lot of it consider it the best city in the world.

  29. Best thing about French American, so I hear, is the upper school student caught having sex in the alley by a parent from the adjacent Chinese American School.

    Those French have all the fun.

  30. Best thing about French American is the international parent community. It is really something to have 5 - 10 different nationalities represented in each class. The kids learn a lot from each other.

  31. How do they learn from one another if all they do is try to speak/learn French?!

    When would they ever have time to instill their own culture?!

  32. We toured FAIS last year. Loved the community. Were impressed by the students we met. Weren't sure about Andrew Brown. Were promised nothing and got in and got a small amount of assistance, too. We are not European. Ultimately we chose another non-immersion school.

    I would ask lots of questions about the FAIS approach to student conflict and would also ask to speak to parents who have kids in grades 4 and higher.

    It seems those who make it through leave with an amazing perspective and great language skills. Not sure at what expense. It also seems many leave the rigorous program before middle school.

  33. 11:22 -- Most children end up making friends with other students, talking and playing with them, even.

  34. I've never had children at FAIS but I feel like I can back up the disgruntled FAIS parent. My child has a speech impediment and his private speech teacher asked him if kids made fun of him. In his laid back public school environment no one ever had, and the thought hadn't even crossed our minds. I asked her if there were kids out there who were tormented about that kind of thing. She said it all depends on the school, but the kids she saw from FAIS had been treated awfully by other kids. It made me glad we chose public.

  35. NOTE: Some seem unaware that the tea and chat with Andrew Brown is basically your INTERVIEW, and you are there to schmooze him. So talk yourself up if you're really interested in the school; try to be friendly, make a good impression, and hide the fact that everything about the guy sets off your BS alarm.

  36. 6:56, I hear you about the kid's trouble. A family acquaintance is a child psychologist, and her practice is 80% FAIS kids. I don't know whether this is because parents who can afford FAIS also afford therapy more often than the average parent. But she says what she sees coming through her office week after week is not bad parenting. She told me once that her job description should read: FAIS Damage Control.

  37. There are so many negative comments on here about FAIS. Everyone I know who sends their children there love it. Anyone want to talk about the good stuff?

  38. A family acquaintance is a child psychologist, and her practice is 80% FAIS kids. I don't know whether this is because parents who can afford FAIS also afford therapy more often than the average parent.

    Lots of psychologists have kids from common populations due to referrals. One parent passes on a name and so on. The school itself might even list this therapist as a resource. It's not necessarily about the institution. And, yes, private school families are much more likely to seek therapy, as well as tutors, because they can.

  39. I think you have to ask middle school parents to get a complete picture. That is when the pressure really kicks in.

  40. For those looking at FAIS, I just wanted to mention that a group of parents is working toward an extended enrichment program of up to 10 weekly hours in French at one of the SF public schools, beginning as early as January 2009. At this point we're looking at approaching Miraloma, Peabody or possibly Grattan, but are open to others.

    If you are interested, please contact Kim at

  41. Would this French enrichment program be open to students at other schools as well?

  42. My daughter goes to FAIS and she is in K. She started in PK. Neither my husband nor I know French, but she is doing well in French.
    It is right that what Andrew Brown says is not all true, but I do not think he really tries to tell you a lie. I heard later that the tea with him, an informal time with him is to check out parents....
    and it is NOT true that everyone gets in at PK. I met many people during the informal tea AND at the evaluation and they did NOT get in regardless of the fact they were selling to Andrew how wonderful their kids are and how they should get in....
    I was not 100% sure about the school and I was honest about it. I stated the fact that my daughter is bilingual (English and another Asian language). I told him that we were not sure because there is NO French connection for us.
    What we like about FAIS is that it is quite international. The parents I met are all quite interesting and NOT snobbish but intelligent and nice.
    What I see as FAIS's problem are Administration, the level of education for lower grade. It has some nice teachers, but there are internal politics within teachers. Also Administration is really slow and unless parents make a fuss, they do not seem to take care of basic things.
    Regarding number of kids in class, K has about 22kids in each class (4 classes total). Normally, they do not accept any more after this grade. Many leave going back to France, moving and after 2nd grade, the ones who just cannot do well in bilingual education are encouraged to leave and the number gets smaller.
    CAIS (Chinese American International School) is much stricter and rigorous academically.
    I do not think FAIS is the best school for everyone, but if you are internationally minded and your child is into languages, (which my daughter is) you may want to consider it.

  43. So I'm very interested in a French program in San Francisco. There's FAIS, plus the Lycée and NDV, among other things. So I've started a blog to gather my thoughts (and hopefully the thoughts of other francophile and francophone parents around here):

    I've put my FAIS entty online.

    Comments are welcome. It's not a City of San Francisco thing either, with a listing of all the French immersion and bilingual schools (that I know of) in the Bay Area.

  44. Well, my son just got rejected from PK at FAIS without any real explanation as to why. Any random person out there have any insight?

  45. ^^Thanks!!


  46. Wow. I know this is totally after the fact, but I had to leave a comment. Some of the comments here are so different from what we have experienced. My son started pre-K last year and is in K this year. The playground conflicts just haven't been on our radar at all. Not saying it doesn't happen, but has not been something we have experienced or have heard of our friends experiencing. FAIS did start a peer conflict resolution system in 2009-2010, so maybe that accounts for the difference. It seems very successful -- my son uses it at home a lot with his little sister.

    In terms of comparison with the lycee, I think the Lycee is more French whereas FAIS is more international. Many of the families seem to have one foreign parent (predominantly European) who aren't in love with the US system and are looking for something halfway between the European school and American ones. Many families do not speak French and do not have any connections to francophone culture, but do have some international connection.

    The school has more boys than girls and can be a little too quiet for some of the wiggly boys, but you can turn that into an admissions advantage if you are so inclined. Admission into pre-K is definitely easiest. I don't believe they accept an non-native French speakers after 1st grade.

    There seems to be a big drop-out in 2nd and 3rd grade of children who don't seem to fit the school or can't handle the languages. There is a second drop-out of children who leave after middle school and choose to go to other high schools. The lower schools and the high school are separate and seem to have very different characters. We're happy with the school, but doubtful we will continue all the way through high school. My understanding is that even with the attrition, there is a tight group that stays together as compared to the lycee where there are many families who return to France and don't come back.

    The language is a big deal for our family. My son LOVES learning another language. He's always been very verbal and it is the perfect intellectual challenge for him. Certainly not the right fit for every kid or every family, but a really nice thing for him.

  47. Can anyone speak to the actual PK4 curriculum? My son is at a great Montessori preschool where he gets a lot of individual attention. I'm wondering if another year of his present school would be a greater benefit to him than switching to FAIS. Of course we won't know until we get there whether FAIS will be the best school for him moving forward.