This second in-depth interview with Maria Karvouni, the Principal of Auburn High in Hawthorn East, Melbourne, explores the principal’s role in the creation of a French Immersion Program at the school since its re-establishment in 2014.
Maria Karvouni (MK): I’m always very interested in bilingual education, being bilingual myself and brought up in a bilingual environment. The school was established in 2014 following the closure of Hawthorn Secondary with a vision to create a bilingual pathway in French for students who have studied French or for other students as well.
My school community here is quite diverse. Teaching in a second language in the school makes it a much more inclusive school and more understanding of people’s needs and differences.
The school started with a French Bilingual Program, which means the students in that class learn an advanced level of French, they also learn three other subjects in French – Science, Maths and Humanities. Nearly 60% of the curriculum is taught in French.

READ MORE: Language programs that are available in Victoria schools

The community in the previous year, established a community-reference group to look at “what can we do to this school to attract local families to come to a local government school”, and they talked to the local primary schools, industry sector, Swinburne University, which is nearby, and the Department of Education. What became obvious was the lack of pathways for students from Camberwell Primary and Caulfield Junior who had gone through the Bilingual (French) program. This was one of the factors that pushed for the creation of the bilingual program. Unless your community wants this, you have to think twice about why you are introducing this program.

Principal Maria Karvouni with Auburn High School students at assembly. Photo: Supplied

Ours is the only secondary school that has a program that is accredited by the French Ministry. For a government school to set this up, permission needs to be sought from your school council. I would also be holding a lot of discussions with other schools in the area.
Regional approval is also needed because you are running a select entry program into your primary school. The Department of Education has four regions, so discussions need to be had with people in your region. They need to ensure that it’s something the community wants and that it is sustainable because there are costs involved. It takes at least two years in the planning before you go and implement it.
Vasso Zangalis (VZ): How many students do you have in the program?
MK: Because this is a three-tier program, the top tier was a very high level, so some students we felt were not suited. So, a second tier – the intermediate program – was introduced. There are 25 students in the very high-level program, at Years 7, 8 and 9, totalling 75 students. These programs stop in Year 9. At senior school, we have about 18 students in our partial-immersion program, which means they do a high level of French, but they also do their Science in French. In the rest of the school all the other students do their beginner’s French and move through that. The teachers often teach across all three programs. For example, our Maths teacher teaches a regular Maths program as well.
ED: So, in the situation where another school wanted to adopt a similar immersion program what steps would you recommend they take?
MK: First consult with your local community, your current parents as well as your prospective parents. I would be starting at primary, because it’s easier to start your languages at foundation. There are lots of different models. There is a network of bilingual primary schools that is quite active in Victoria, I would suggest they make contact with that network and that someone from the Department of Education works with them.
Next take it to school council – they need to be heavily involved. Then take it to your region, Victoria is in four regions. Start small, maybe with prep or foundation, and maybe one bilingual class.
ED: Why do you think students want to be involved in the program?
MK: Students that have gone through the bilingual schools see the benefit and I think that they want to continue with their language. Kids actually enjoy speaking French and speaking another language, whether it’s Greek or French, etc.
We do use the AIM (Accelerative Integrated Method) teaching model in the beginner classes which uses gestures. So, it actually starts stimulating their brain and gives students the confidence to do the oral work. It’s been very popular in the school and the decision to go fully French across the whole school has been very well accepted.
VZ: Any final words?
MK: A big component of bilingual education, and the more we have in Australia particularly in a very monolingual society. It’s not until you travel that you realise ‘wow – how do these people in Europe learn three languages at once’. It’s about just infusing and using it in the curriculum as much as we can, particularly in primary, instil a love of learning, the love of other cultures and understanding. It creates better citizens, a better tolerance and understanding of where people come from.