New Computer School Makes French Students Teach Themselves

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A newly opened computer school in Paris has been overwhelmed by about 60,000 applicants. The school is called 42. It was founded by a telecom magnate who says the French education system is failing young people. And his aim is to reduce France's shortage of computer programmers, while giving those who've dropped out of school a second chance. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this report.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Suitcases and sleeping bags are piled up in the hallways of 42, and people are stretched out on mattresses in some of the corners. There are showers and dozens of colorful bath towels. We're going up a staircase and there's towels on both sides on the railings. Living here for the next month are some of the 4,000 potential students who already made the first cut by passing cognitive skill tests online. Now, they have to clear another hurdle. They're thrown together and challenged with computer problems for 15 hours a day. Only 800 students will get a place, says 42's director Nicolas Sadirac.

NICOLAS SADIRAC: It's very, very intensive. It's kind of selection, but on the long term. So, we don't just do an examination, we spend four weeks of choosing each student.

BEARDSLEY: The only criteria for applying, is to be between the ages of 18 and 30.You don't need money and you don't need a particular level of academic achievement. A third of the applicants don't even have high school diplomas. Sadirac says they're not looking for how much students know but how they think. One of the schools main goals is to unearth talent in poor areas where kids don't fit into the traditional French academic mold. Youth unemployment in France is at a 14-year high. At the same time, French companies cannot find enough IT specialists and thousands of young computer enthusiasts can't get training. That prompted 42's founder Xavier Niel to invest $90 million of his own money in the school. Niel, the creator of France's third largest telecommunications company, Free, says the social elevator in France is broken.

XAVIER NIEL: (Through Translator) If you're the son of a blue collar worker, you're going to be a blue collar worker. Children of elites stay elite. We have 200,000 kids a year who drop out of the French school system and have no hope. They become a drag on society. We want to help these young people take control of their lives.

BEARDSLEY: For example, there are no teachers. Students learn by solving problems.

SADIRAC: We don't want to teach them stuff we want them to find solutions on problem. Because we don't know the problem in the future. So, we are creating students able to learn by themselves.

BEARDSLEY: Sadirac says in the past 20 years the world will change at a staggering pace. 42 is looking for young people who can think outside the box. He says formal academic training can sometimes hinder that.

SADIRAC: Because when you go to academic you are trained to follow models, reproduce models and not try a new one. You are so much trained that you are not able anymore to create new. So, if we want to make people innovative or creative, we need to get out of this system.

BEARDSLEY: During their final year, 42's students will work together on a huge project known as a masterpiece. Much like an apprenticeship, they build their talents and learn from each other. Eighteen-year-old candidate Lloyd Cochet loves the schools philosophy.

LLOYD COCHET: (Through Translator) I had a hard time following in school. I can't concentrated and they forbid us to talk in class. And here, talking together and passing along tips is the key to succeeding.

BEARDSLEY: Outside on the sidewalk 27-year-old Omar Marzougi is taking a break. His parents emigrated from Tunisia. Many young people with North African roots say they face discrimination in France. It's a complicated issue, says Marzougi, but one thing's for sure...

OMAR MARZOUGI: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: There's no discrimination at this school, he says, because getting in isn't based on your education level or social status. It's a true melting pot. Even though 42 doesn't yet offer a recognized diploma, potential students feel sure it will prepare them to face the future better than any state-sanctioned school. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR news, Paris.

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