LINCOLN SQUARE — Expect to hear "bonjour" a lot more around the neighborhood — Lycee Francais de Chicago officially broke ground Saturday on the school's new $35 million campus, rising up on the site of the former Ravenswood Hospital.
"Building this school confirms Chicago as a world-class city," said Alain Weber, president of Lycee Francais, a private school for students pre-k through grade 12 that provides a dual-language curriculum grounded in the French educational system.
Under a brilliant blue sky on a summerlike afternoon, members of the lycee community gathered on the grounds of the school's future soccer field to celebrate what Weber termed a dream made reality.
"We had state-of-the-art education and top-notch teachers, but we didn't have top-notch facilities, and now we do," said Patty Simpson, head of the leadership gift committee, which has raised $6.7 million to help fund the new campus.
Simpson and her late husband David were among the first non-French-speaking families at lycee, which was founded in 1995. The couple's oldest daughter has since graduated from the school, and their younger two are still enrolled.
"It sounds cliche now, but we wanted our children to be citizens of the world," Simpson said.
Her daughters are not only fluent in French and English, but also Spanish — which they were taught in French.
"The mental gymnastics involved is priceless," she said.
Lycee's enrollment has exploded in recent years — jumping from 125 students at the time of its founding to more than 700 — and the school is bursting at the seams of its rented digs in Buena Park.
The search for a permanent home to call its own ended as soon as the leadership team took a look at the massive Lincoln Square site at Damen and Wilson avenues.
"How can you find that size...in an urban setting?" Weber asked. "There is room for expansion," with enrollment expected to max out at 800.
Lycee was the first development project that crossed the desk of a then newly elected 47th Ward Ald. Ameya Pawar in 2011.
The school will further the city's reputation as a hub of culture, commerce and the arts, he said at Saturday's groundbreaking.
Though the campus is not receiving any money from the city — no Tax Increment Financing dollars were allocated — the alderman said that the school's soccer field and playground would be "available to the neighborhood at large."
Pawar worked with Lycee Francais on a campus design that accommodates the needs of the school and remains considerate of surrounding residents.
"We have a private drive for pickup and drop-off, so no calls of complaints from your constituents," said Weber, addressing his comments to Pawar during the ceremony.
The drive, he said, is long enough to hold as many as 60 cars at a time.
Weber said the school intends to become a vibrant member of the Lincoln Square and Ravenswood communities.
Lycee offers summer school programs open to any child "who wants to become bilingual," he said.
Though the school was founded to serve the children of Chicago's French expatriates and is considered a significant carrot when it comes to luring global corporations to Chicago. Lycee's enrollment is now 50 percent American.
In fact, Weber managed to persuade the French government to supply the lion's sharing of funding for Lycee's campus — in the form of $25 million in loan guarantees — in part by pitching the appeal a more visible campus would have for non-French families.
"Once non-French children attend, they have a good feeling for Francophone countries," he said.
Graham Paul, consul general of France in Chicago, attended the groundbreaking and stated that his government's investment in lycee, particularly during a time of budget constraints, "shows the commitment France places on French education and Chicago."
Lycee Francais' new campus is set to open for the 2015 school year.