Nancy Brennan

Chilliwack parents want early French immersion: report

Chilliwack parents overwhelmingly support starting an early French immersion program, according to school board report. But will it happen?

Chilliwack parents overwhelmingly support starting an early French immersion program in elementary schools, according to the Early French Immersion Feasibility Study presented to the school board on Tuesday. But there are serious practical challenges to setting up the program.

Of those interviewed for the study, 82 per cent – the vast majority of whom were parents – voted ‘yes’ to a program that introduces students to French immersion in kindergarten or Grade 1. This would likely replace the current late French immersion (LFI) program, which begins at Grade 6.

The study, conducted from Oct. 2012 to Jan. 2013, evaluated the community interest, infrastructure requirements, and alignment to existing policies, of an early French immersion (EFI) program. Independent consultant Nancy Brennan, from Make A Future, the recruitment arm of BC Public School Employers’ Association, led the study.

One component was a self-selected public survey, which was available on the school district website Dec. 4–21. 377 people replied. Respondents were 92 per cent parents, and represented all elementary schools.

Parents who supported the program often had personal experience with French immersion, valued the career advancement it would provide, believed the additional learning challenge would be welcome, and that it would attract students to the district. 68 per cent of survey respondents replied that they would move their kids to another school in the district for EFI.

Parents who opposed the program, however, were concerned that it would take funds away from other core programs; that French was not the most appropriate second language to offer to students; that there would be a negative impact on English learning; and, that the district might not find qualified staff.

Even those who supported the program were unsure whether before- and after-school supervision would be available, which school would be selected, and whether there would be transportation.

The Chilliwack school district is already stressed with high population growth, which takes up all available teaching capacity and physical space. An elementary EFI program, for instance, would need at least six classrooms. And LFI and EFI could not be easily combined, since students in LFI are in separate middle schools, and would have trouble keeping up with their EFI peers. In the immediate years, the district would need EFI, LFI, and intermediary programs to make the transition possible.

“It seems at this time that there is no one centrally located elementary school site in Chilliwack that could accommodate the early French immersion program for Kindergarten to Grade 6 without causing significant overcrowding, and/or disruption to existing catchment area boundaries,” Brennan told the school board and public on Tuesday night.

These are B.C.-wide problems. All French immersion programs suffer from lack of bilingual staff, limited classroom space, and insufficient funding — which contributes to more students seeking the program, than spots available.

Kim Andreassen, a parent who went through French immersion herself, feels that with Chilliwack’s fast development, and the existing plans for enlarging schools and the increases in enrollment, the board will not approve an EFI program.

“With just the infrastructure costs alone, they won’t go for it,” she said outside of the board meeting.

She believes this is a short-sighted approach, because the program would attract teachers and students. Andreassen is considering driving her kids, one who is currently in Kindergarten, and another starting in 2014, to Abbotsford for the city’s French immersion program. She felt the survey was not publicized enough, and she only found it through a Facebook group, Parents for Early French Immersion in Chiliwack.

The Ministry of Education provides a set amount per student for the EFI program — for one Kindergarten and one Grade 1 class in Chilliwack, the total would be $18,000 — but this cannot be used for staffing, and will not fully cover the other costs. The board did not discuss how it would fill the funding gap.

Clint Johnston, president of the Chilliwack Teachers’ Association, strongly supports an EFI program, and believes the survey highlighted a real need.

“I think we’ve drifted away from what public education is about, and that’s creating well-educated but also well-rounded people with lots of opportunities who can participate actively in government,” says Johnston, who regrets that a lack of funding is threatening to block a program that has broad community support.

If the board approves the program, the report recommends a Sept. 2014 start date, allowing the district to develop policies, hire staff, and organize student applications and registrations. It would also need to conduct another survey, to get a definite commitment of students before moving forward. The board will now review the feasibility report, a process that may take several months.

Chilliwack is one of only two school districts in the Fraser Valley not to offer an EFI program, the other being Fraser Cascade. Every district in the Lower Mainland offers it.

The EFI feasibility study report is available online, appended to the Feb. 12 board meeting minutes on the Chilliwack school district website.

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