The city of Portland, Oregon in 1979 probably would not have been described as "sophisticated" or "cosmopolitan."
But the metropolitan area was more forward-thinking than most people knew as the 1970s drew to a close. Already it was in the midst of constructing a light rail system that would become a model for communities around the world. In addition, the region was leading the nation in development of recycling projects.
And Portland had a bilingual school.
In a small room in the basement of an Episcopal church in Southwest Portland, every weekday from September to the end of 1979 five toddlers and a French woman spent their days singing songs, reciting nursery rhymes, and playing games…in French.
The school was the brainchild, the crazy dream, and the heroic creation of one man: Jean Claude Paris, a Frenchman who just a six months earlier had moved to Portland with his wife Maarja and their two young sons, Anton and Adam.
Born in Nice, educated in Paris, Jean Claude had come from France to San Francisco in 1971 to work in the French consulate as commercial vice consul. After a year he left the consular service to enter the world of private banking, accepting a position with the Bank Nationale de Paris.
In addition to his work obligations Jean Claude became involved with a number of civic organizations in San Francisco, including the Lycée Français la Pérouse, a bilingual private school. As a board member, he says, "I saw what bilingualism was about. So when we moved to Portland my wife and I thought it would be a good idea to start such a school." Taking the Lycée Français as his model, Jean Claude envisioned a school that would begin with a preschool classroom and add a higher grade each year as its students grew older.
In April of 1979 Jean Claude incorporated the French American Bilingual School as a non-profit educational organization in Oregon. (The school’s name was later changed to the French American School, and finally to the French American International School.) To incorporate he needed a board of trustees, so he approached four local teachers of French who agreed to sign on.
In those first frantic months, Jean Claude Paris focused on three priorities.
"First, I had to identify potential parents," he says. "The board helped somewhat. Then I went after everything that could be French or French-related. The Honorary French consul, Mr. Alfred Hermann, was very, very supportive. He gave me the names of all the professors of French from the college level down. My wife, a graduate of the PSU French department, also helped locate alumni and French people she knew who had children about our children’s ages.
"I called on the French Canadian circles, the Swiss circles, the Belgian circles." He put up posters in local department stores and grocery stores. He persuaded a local radio station manager to create and air public service announcements about the school.
"And then I had a fantastic boost," Jean Claude says. "I called on the editor of the Travel section of The Oregonian," and suggested she print a story "saying, ‘If you need an interpreter when you go to France, enroll your child at the French School, and next summer he or she will be able to assist you.’" It was a small story, but it drew response. A few weeks later a story by the newspaper’s education editor drew even more calls. "Inquiries started coming from all directions," Jean Claude says.
But those inquiries brought challenges. Prospective parents wanted answers: Where would the school be located? Who would teach? How much would tuition cost? Over and over Jean Claude had to reply, "I don’t know."
"People thought I was crazy," Jean Claude says.
But he persisted with his second goal: to find a location for the school. He approached local public school districts, and then private schools, asking if they had an empty classroom he could rent. "Everyone was extremely supportive of the idea," he says, "but they didn’t have any space."
Then two board members introduced Jean Claude to the Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the church on the grounds of the Oregon Episcopal School. "Father Robert Greenfield was a true scholar, a French speaker, and a francophile," Jean Claude says. "I said, ‘Well, if you have a church, you must have a Sunday School room that’s only used on Sunday. What about the rest of the week? Could we rent it from you? And he agreed. That was in July of 1979, two months before we opened our doors."
Now he had to find a teacher. "I wanted a French-speaking, trained preschool teacher," Jean Claude says. "That was very important. I talked to a lot of people with Master’s degrees and Ph.D.s who had taught high school and college. But that was not the fit. The preschool curriculum is very different than teaching French as a second language. We were talking about full immersion."
Labor Day was approaching and Jean Claude was getting desperate, when one day he was at the U.S. West office in downtown Portland. "I met a young lady who was there to apply for a phone installation. She was struggling a bit with the application and I volunteered to help her." Jean Claude asked the young woman if she was new to town. "She said she had just arrived with her husband and young daughter. She was French, and she was looking for a job and could not find one. I inquired, ‘What trade are you in?’ and she said, ‘I am a preschool teacher.’ I think I almost embraced her."
When Jean Claude told the young woman he was opening a French American preschool and needed a teacher, "she must have thought I was just making it up." But he wasn’t. Within days Marie-France Feuillebois had consulted with her husband Bernard, and accepted the job.
Today Marie-France and Bernard Feuillebois live in Florida. Marie-France remembers teaching those first five students in the church basement in 1979. "It felt like a very important mission," she says today. "Jean Claude wanted to create something that would be good for a lot of people in Portland who wanted their children to learn a different language." But working without an adequate budget, without enough supplies or educational materials, was a challenge. "I remember we used grocery bags for the children to draw on," she says. Nevertheless, "it was a very happy time."
In August 1979, now with a classroom and a teacher, "I called back all the parents who had expressed interest," Jean Claude says. Tuition was set at $750 for the nine-month school year. Jean Claude’s son Anton was the first student enrolled. Marie France Feuillebois’s daughter Geraldine, also three years old, was enrolled. The third student was Damien Joly.
"Knowing how important languages are, we jumped on the opportunity," says Damien’s father, Christian Joly, who today owns Capers Café in Portland. Later Christian, a Frenchman, would serve as board president for a brief period. But in 1979 he was just a supportive parent. "It was scary," for the first few years, Christian says. "We had teachers who spoke no English. At one point, we had some English teachers who spoke no French. It was scary, but it was exciting. And the school just mushroomed. It grew and grew and grew."
In the next three years the school would grow to two classrooms in the church basement, then move to four new locations in Beaverton and Portland. Each semester saw a near doubling in the number of students. Jean Claude was there every day, before and after his work in a downtown bank, overseeing operations.
Under his leadership The French American School adopted the French public school curriculum and became accredited by the government of France in record time, somewhat easing the financial burden on its founder and others who used personal funds and personal loans to keep the school afloat in the early years.
But the school also experienced intense growing pains in its first decade. It endured board, parent and faculty intrigues, weathered the firings of teachers, board presidents, and heads of school, and survived what loyal parents began to refer to as "the revolutions" that seemed to crop up every few years.
Still the school grew, still it provided a high quality education, and still it produced young people fluent, or at least conversant, in a language most did not hear spoken at home.
Eventually, suffering from exhaustion, Jean Claude Paris resigned as unpaid director, board president, recruiter, marketer, bookkeeper and janitor of the French American school.
"I must say Jean Claude Paris jumped in with both feet," says Christian Joly, who was there from day one. "I’ve never seen a man so obsessed with making something work. He had a mission and he would not, he would not stop pursuing that mission. He did whatever it took, and he worked very, very hard. It’s not easy starting a school. I really don’t think what he did has ever been adequately appreciated."
Dr. Peter Nathan, who followed Jean Claude Paris as board president in 1981, agrees. "Jean Claude was the man," Peter says. "He worked me over for a good year, trying to get me involved, getting me involved." Peter fought hard to ensure the survival of the school in its early years, but he insists Jean Claude Paris should receive the credit for its existence. "He was the founder, and it was a difficult fight," Peter says. "He was the founder of this school as George Washington was the first president of this country."