COLUMN: Do we need a rethink on French Immersion programming?

School boards have spent a lot of money implementing French Immersion programming in schools in the last 10 years. English boards (Public and Catholic) have done so to remain competitive in the four-board school system in Ontario. Introducing more French-language instruction is seen as a benefit to schools, a selling feature if you will. Who can blame parents for choosing French Immersion programs? Given the bilingual nature of employment in Eastern Ontario, especially in Ottawa, being able to speak both of Canada’s official languages can mean the difference in your child’s future career options. With that said, have the programs that deliver French education in our schools been implemented properly? I believe that those programs have not and have caused much of the problems in the Upper Canada District School Board and their reported 10,000 vacant spaces that the board now has to reduce.

Start with the roll out of the Early French Immersion (EFI) program in schools. Certain schools were selected to begin EFI. Students from outside of those school boundaries were offered transportation to attend the school offering EFI. This boosted enrollment numbers at those schools, but did so by cannibalizing enrollment at other schools. In rural communities, this cannibalization can take a school that has marginal enrollment and push it to closure. An example of this is S. J. McLeod Public School in Bainsville, which saw its enrollment drop consistently; from 58 students in 2010 to 19 students in 2016. Meanwhile the EFI school, Williamstown Public School, is over capacity. Parents are making the choice to go with EFI and since S.J. McLeod does not offer it, the parents choose to send their kids elsewhere.

Another effect on schools that do not have EFI is stigma. If a school in your community does not have EFI, and the one in the next community does, that leaves a negative and powerful impression. This has harmed enrollment in many non-EFI schools. Parents make the choice to send their children to the school that has better programming. If there is an EFI school in the next town and there is transportation provided, then that school is chosen. If one of the other boards have a school in the same community and it provides better programming, then they will make that choice. Again, the non-EFI school suffers. Once that stigma is applied, it is hard to remove. Ask a realtor in a community where the good schools are. Their answer is in line with above.

Transportation is another factor. Since implementing EFI programming in some schools, transportation costs have soared. To reduce that cost, staggered school times were put in place, along with the forced sharing of resources with other boards for transportation.

From Morrisburg to Lancaster, South Mountain to Alexandria, this region has had a disservice done by the UCDSB in their implementation of French Immersion programming. A rethink is in order on how the board offers this programming.

One solution is to implement EFI in all elementary schools across the board. By offering the same service in every school, and re-balancing schools to their rightful boundary numbers, many of the schools considered for closure no longer have a good case for it.  The savings in transportation costs would offset some of the increased programming costs. Re-balancing boundaries would also fix capacity issues where schools like Williamstown Public School and Winchester Public School are over capacity with portables, while other schools sit underutilized.  Some schools would still be in need of closing, but not as many. Other schools could be renovated to reduce excess capacity. Meanwhile the schools that would remain, all with identical programming, would be in a better position to thrive.

There are two challenges with this. One is recruiting enough teachers that can teach under the EFI system (bilingual imperative) and two, re-balancing students between the schools. Some families may balk at having to move their child to another school in the middle of their elementary school career. In order to succeed with this solution, the band-aid of grandfathered transportation would need to be removed.

The other solution is to rethink EFI in schools altogether. Is half-day instruction in French the best way to learn the language? Are students who struggle in EFI programs being best served by lower marks in both languages, where they may thrive with more English instruction instead. A student could move from Immersion to core-French instruction, but that would mean changing schools due to transportation, or the perceived stigma of a student not being able to “handle it” in an EFI program. Many students struggle with this. Is struggling in two languages equally, just to stay at the perceived “better school”, setting up students for a successful future? The Ministry of Education has revamped the immersion curriculum in recent years to focus more on spoken French, than reading and writing. Has student success increased by making the curriculum easier? When EFI students move on to secondary school, are they continuing with French education? Most do not as they are looking for other courses in the fields they are choosing for a future career or post-secondary education. Yet considerable cost is spent on providing French-language programming options.

These are all important questions that need to be answered. But that would mean bucking the current climate of making everything bilingual even when it does not have to be. Reexamining French language instruction can, and has, been deemed anti-French by many. It is yet another third-rail that few wish to discuss?

Overall the implementation of EFI in all schools would be the easiest solution for the issue of French language instruction. That does not mean it would be the best option. A rethink of French language instruction is needed. As that will not likely happen, it is better to go with the easiest solution. This way, it will improve some of issues within the UCDSB schools. Some improvement is better than no improvement and with re-balanced schools, it would make it easier to remove some excess capacity in the system.