Early French immersion in Chilliwack faces board vote tonight

If approved, the program would add $1 million in additional operating costs to a school district facing a $200,000 deficit this year.

The future is bleak for an early French immersion program in Chilliwack. Ahead of a final vote on the option at Tuesday’s public board meeting, superintendent Evelyn Novak has laid out the projected costs.

In its first year of implementation, potentially 2014-15, EFI would cost $578,035. This amount would cover the first batch of 20 kindergarten and 22 Grade 1 EFI students for one year. In subsequent years, as this group moves up the EFI education ladder and additional classes join the bottom ranks, the cost would multiply, reaching over $1 million in annual operating costs within five years.

The school district already projects a budget deficit of $200,000 for the upcoming year.

“This would be an additional budget consideration,” said Novak of the EFI program. “We would have to go back to our budget and reduce areas that we’re currently doing. We would have some cutting.”

The entire federal grant that the district receives for running a French immersion program is allocated to the current Late French Immersion classes, about $140,000 annually.

An EFI program would not trigger any additional provincial or federal funding, other than a total of $15,000 for resources. The only hope for additional funding would be from students enrolling in the district who would not have otherwise, which would increase the district’s per pupil grant.

“We heard the parents in wanting to have it implemented. We wanted to make it work. The board believes in programs of choice and offering a variety of programs to students. They believe French immersion is valuable. It’s the other challenges that impact the decision as well,” said Novak.

The school board is not considering combining the EFI class grades, and the cost would be the same if fewer than the highest number of students enroll in the program.

The Chilliwack chapter of Canadian Parents for French, a group that advocates for an EFI program, is optimistic that the vote tomorrow night will go in their favour.

“I’m excited because it’s the closest thing we’ve seen to actually having an early French immersion program in Chilliwack,” said president Jocelyn Thomas. “I think if every other district can do it, we should be able to as well.”

If the board approves the program, Novak has recommended that Cheam Elementary School serve as the site because it has two possible classrooms available.

Novak admits that it may be difficult for parents to bring their children to the school, located off Yale Road East, as more parents prefer an EFI program on the south side.

“We looked carefully at spaces on the south side, and there isn’t space to add an early French immersion program in any of our schools,” said Novak. “One of the challenges would be displacement of possible students from their home community school.”

Cheam Elementary might serve as a temporary site, until one of the new schools in the Eastern Hillsides is built. Although the Ministry of Education has designated Chilliwack’s five-year capital plan as “high priority,” there has been no funding allocated to the new schools yet.

The school district would not provide additional transportation for students commuting long distances for EFI because the program is optional.

The school board will do a final vote on the EFI program at the May 14 board meeting, based on the superintendent’s latest report, and the feasibility study released in February.