AUGUSTA — Andrew Fortunato’s grandmother grew up in Lewiston, where she spoke French until she went to school, where she was told she couldn’t speak it anymore.

Andrew’s mother, Staci Fortunato, says the fifth-grader’s participation in the Maine French Heritage Language Program in Augusta has brought him closer to his grandmother – and his French roots.

Roger Pomerleau, an Augusta resident who also has deep French heritage, sees a more practical reason for the program: With Maine’s proximity to Quebec, where French is the preferred language, it benefits the area’s residents to know the language and culture for better business relations.

Program founder Chelsea Ray sees the program as a key piece to preserving the Augusta area’s rich Franco-American heritage.

Those involved in the after-school French language and cultural program for elementary school students see as many reasons for it to continue as there are students in the class. Organizers and parents of participants in the program, which recently became part of the city’s recreation offerings, hope area residents see that, too, enough to help keep the classes afloat.

The Maine French Heritage Language Program’s Augusta class now draws 12 elementary-age students to Lincoln Elementary School on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school for lessons on French and Franco-American language and heritage.

The 4-year-old program, begun after the city’s elementary-level French classes were eliminated in a cost-cutting move in 2010, is funded in part by the New York-based French American Cultural Exchange’s French Heritage Language Program, and it previously received grant funding or other support from several other organizations, including the Centre de la Francophonie des Ameriques in Quebec, the Maine Humanities Council, Bangor Savings Bank, the Windover Foundation, the University of Maine at Augusta and the Franco Center for Heritage and the Performing Arts in Lewiston.

There is also a fee for children to attend, which was recently increased to $10 per class for the 17-week program. Scholarships are available through the city’s recreation program for parents who can’t afford the full fee.

While officials anticipate funding from the French American Cultural Exchange program will continue, the other funding sources are no longer involved. Ray, a founder of the program and an associate French professor at the University of Maine at Augusta, said most of them were short-term grants meant to help get the program off the ground.

So they’re looking to raise money locally to keep it going.

“We are reaching out to the community after having worked many years to build quality, low-cost programming in Augusta,” Ray said. “We put in the effort and built the program. Now we need the community to meet us halfway and help support us. We can’t go it alone. We hope people who are interested in preserving French language and heritage in central Maine will come support us.”

DISAPPEARING CULTURE

The program not only teaches the French language, but also includes lessons on French heritage and culture of specific interest to the large Franco-American community in Augusta and Maine.

Fortunato said her 11-year-old son, Andrew, a fifth-grader at Lincoln Elementary School, has been in the program three years, and the program has become part of his life. She said it has helped build a stronger connection between him and his grandmother – her mother-in-law – Jacqueline Laplante Fortunato, 70.

“I like how the program is kind of Franco-American-focused,” Fortunato said. “There’s a difference between Parisian French and Franco. I think he (Andrew) can relate to that more.

“The language itself, and culture, was lost for many people, because they were told to hide their background, that it was something to be ashamed of,” Fortunato said. “To turn that into something positive has been a big deal for my mother-in-law and has extended (her and Andrew’s) relationship. I think, for some people, it may be a way to make those connections with family stronger.”

Ray noted Franco-American culture was and still is an important part of Maine’s culture and heritage, but fewer people are speaking French at home, and she’s concerned that heritage could be lost.

“The programming in Augusta was conceived as a historic corrective to the discrimination that Franco-Americans have experienced in Maine,” Ray said. “We hope to highlight this important history, culture and language to students of all ages.”

FUTURE BENEFITS

Ray said the program must to come up with about $6,000 to continue. Karen Foust, teacher and coordinator of the program, said total program costs are around $28,000 a year.

Officials hope to raise some or all of the necessary $6,000 at a Saturday, March 14, “Springtime in Paris” fundraiser at Le Club Calumet in Augusta. The event is a joint fundraiser, with most of the proceeds going to the Maine French Heritage Language Program in Augusta but some also going to support French at UMA.

Pomerleau, an Augusta resident and advisor to the program, and businessman of French descent, urged locals to support the program.

“We want to preserve some of the French culture here. It’s part of our history and still a strong part of the community,” he said, noting about 20 percent of the local population is of French descent. “We probably won’t make up all the funds in one night, but I think it could go a long ways in that direction. It could become an annual event that could fund the program.”

Pomerleau said there are also economic reasons to have a strong local French program at the elementary level.

He noted that Maine’s proximity to Quebec provides business opportunities for Mainers who speak French. He said a Quebec law requires all business contracts to be recorded only in French, and, even though speaking French isn’t required to do business there, it sure helps.

“I don’t think we do enough business with our neighbors to the north. There should be more cooperation, and this is a step in that direction,” Pomerleau said. “It’s a global economy, and French is a language that’s spoken around the world.”

Foust said the class currently has four first-graders in it, with one sixth grader and the rest in between. She said even the youngest students are capable of learning a foreign language.

“The younger kids’ brains are really wired for language acquisition, and they’re not as intimidated about making sounds that sound different as older kids,” she said.

Foust, who started taking French when she was in sixth grade, has a master’s degree in French, and has taught in the program since it started.

“The kids really seem to enjoy it, and I love the fact so many come back, year to year. That’s a good validation for the program.”

STATEWIDE MODEL?

Ray said she’d like to see French classes back in the elementary school classroom regularly. She said students learn best when they have sustained contact with the language.

Augusta’s and a similar program in Auburn could serve as models for a statewide elementary-level French curriculum, she said.

Lessons are tailored for each student, so students continue to learn more with each year of participation. Volunteers from the community come in regularly to speak to the students about French heritage and culture.

The class also occasionally goes out to interact with members of the Franco-American community, including a recent singing engagement at Chateau Cushnoc, a housing complex for the elderly on Townsend Street in a part of Augusta that was, and to a lesser extent today remains, a center of the city’s Franco-American community.

Fortunato said it was heartening to watch residents of Chateau Cushnoc interact with the young students and sing along together in French.

She said the after-school commitment for students isn’t any more than they’d make to a sport or a club and that the staff and volunteers in the program are “tremendous.”

The class is at Lincoln Elementary School, but a transfer bus, along with the classroom space and snacks, provided by Augusta schools, is available so students from any of the city’s four elementary schools may attend.

Ray and Doris Belisle-Bonneau, coordinator of the similar program in Auburn, have been awarded the titles of Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Academiques – Knight in Order of Academic Palms – France’s highest distinction for educators around the world, Ray said, at least in part for their roles with the Maine French Heritage Language Program.

She said Fabien Fieschi, the Boston-based consul general of France, is expected to attend and might decorate the pair with their new titles at the event.