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Victory for early French immersion

School Board reverses earlier decision and approves 2014 start for early French immersion in Chilliwack.

In a historic move, the Chilliwack Board of Education approved to start an early French immersion program at the earliest possible time, aiming for a September 2014 start date.

The decision comes after nearly two years of intense lobbying by the Chilliwack chapter of Canadian Parents for French.

Last month, EFI was rejected by the school board amidst concerns over funding. However, in an unexpected about-face, trustee Silvia Dyck – who voted against EFI in May – motioned to free up $600,000 from the reserve to fund the program. The motion carried 4–1.

Local parents were jubilant at the news, and unexpectedly surprised that the board discussed a start day of 2014.

"I'm excited, I'm ecstatic," said local parent Travis Forstbauer, member of Canadian Parents for French. "They wanted our full support. Well, they do have our full support."

Trustees Dyck, Martha Wiens, Heather Maahs, and Walt Krahn voted in favour of implementing EFI at the "earliest possible date subject to sufficient registration." Trustee Barry Neufeld voted against, and trustee Doug McKay abstained, despite speaking against the motion at length Tuesday night.

"The purpose of the reserve fund is in case of a serious emergency, and I don't see early French immersion qualifying as an emergency," said Neufeld. "Although French immersion gives kids an additional advantage, I can't see that it would improve the overall achievement of our students in this district...Our new premier is talking about a 10-year contract with the teachers. That's going to be a long haul without any changes in funding. There's too many uncertainties to support spending the last of our cushion."

Enrollment in French immersion has been increasing over the past 15 years, even as regular enrollment declines, according to Kristy Peterson, the B.C./Yukon outreach officer for Canadian Parents for French. Chilliwack was one of three school districts in the province to offer a late French immersion program without the early start option.

The $600,000 reserve would fund only the first year of the program. However, trustee Maahs believes EFI will bring capital into the district.

"The bottom line is, once we get early French immersion up and running, it's going to make us money. We're going to draw students from other communities. It's probably the best way of redistributing students. It's the cheapest way to reallocate bodies to schools that have low enrollment. It's basically a rebalancing...However we do it, we just need to do it," she said.

Chilliwack parents said they have collected more than enough children for a full class of French immersion.

"We're organized. We've found a lot of parents who want their kids to be in EFI. But we didn't find everyone. There's a lot of people out here that don't even know about it," said Forstbauer. "We're a small network of parents, and we got enough kids for each year for four years. There's a lot more kids out there."

EFI would require two classrooms, and two new teachers, in its first year, with the addition of one classroom and one teacher every year for the duration of the five-year program.

The location for the program remains unclear. The district previously presented four options for sites. The first, and recommended by superintendent Evelyn Novak, is occupying portable classrooms at Cheam Elementary School. Pending provincial funding allocation, once one of the new schools is built in the Eastern Hillsides, EFI could be moved there.

Another option is to use available space at A.D. Rundle Middle school, which has seen declining enrollment. This would convert the middle school into a Kindergarten to Grade 9 institution.

The final option is repairing and re-purposing the old site of Rosedale Elementary, which has been closed since late 2011.

Forstbauer told the board of education in May that 12 of the 14 parents he consulted with would consider Cheam Elementary as their first or second choice, and would be willing to commute to the school for EFI.

The board of education has kept the $600,000 reserve minimum since Oct. 2005. With this amendment, there is no longer a stipulation to keep a reserve at all.