High demand and shortage of teachers force boards to consider changes to the optional program.
Too many students. Not enough teachers.
Struggling to keep up with demand for French Immersion, and how to ensure equal opportunity to its benefits, some Ontario school boards are considering caps on enrolment for the popular program or delaying its start. Others, such as the Peel District School Board, have taken a hard stand and put a 25 per cent cap in place.
In Halton, explosive growth in French Immersion — which now serves 21,000, or almost half of all elementary students — is threatening both the French and English programs.
“We have about 13 of our schools with less than 15 students choosing to remain in the English program,” said newly appointed director of education Stuart Miller, who has been part of an ongoing program viability committee looking at the issues. “We have some really small cohorts in those 13 schools — in some schools there are three or four kids.”
Plus, principals have a “big challenge in recruiting qualified, good quality French Immersion teachers. Our principals have reported that they go through three before they get one. The viability is hard for us, and it’s a challenge for us to sustain a French Immersion program with great uptake, in terms of being able to put really good-quality, fluent French speakers” in classrooms, Miller said.
The board hopes to have a plan approved by next June and changes made by September 2017.
In Halton in particular, the few limits on French Immersion have proved divisive among parents and caused upheaval in communities, with endless boundary reviews and children being kept out of local schools as the English program is phased out. Others have been critical of the money spent on costs such as busing French Immersion students to schools out of their catchment area.
And in Halton, like most other boards, the unspoken issue is that French Immersion is considered something like a private system within the public system, allowing parents to enroll their children in classes with few, if any, at-risk or special-needs students.
In general, boys, minority students and students from less affluent and one-parent homes are less likely to be enrolled in French Immersion, according to statistics in a report by the Toronto District School Board, which has been introducing immersion in vulnerable communities to address the problem.
In the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, a look at how to make French Immersion better suit the full-day kindergarten program led the board to look at equity, too.
“When we started to look at various options, considering (teaching) French in both years of kindergarten, we came across research about barriers to inclusion to French as a second language, and that nationally, students in four groups are particularly under-represented,” said Susan MacDonald, superintendent with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. She lists among those under-represented groups: boys, kids living in poverty, English-language learners and special-needs students.
“We thought, wouldn’t this be a wonderful opportunity to provide a platform for all learners, an inclusionary start to their education.”
The board is proposing 50-50 English and French instruction for all kindergarten students, before asking parents to choose French Immersion in Grade 1. The time spent learning in French in Grade 1 would drop from the current 100 per cent to 60 per cent.
Critics have said the board should offer 100 per cent French instruction in Grades 1 to 3, and that the board is doing something unique for which there’s no research to show effects on achievement.
The board is bolstered by findings that, as in Toronto, students in a less immersive French program, often called “extended French,” beginning around Grade 4 or later, reach similar proficiency levels as those in early French Immersion. In Ottawa, an increasing number of parents were also asking that subjects like math be taught in English.
“We are really big believers in taking down barriers,” said Ottawa superintendent Nadia Towaij, noting busing is provided and almost 70 per cent of families in the nation’s capital want French Immersion in senior kindergarten, where it currently starts, and the changes may make it more appealing to all families.
The proposed changes aren’t sitting well with the Ontario branch of Canadian Parents for French, who sent an open letter to the board arguing they are “not consistent with the large body of research on current practices” and are urging that immersion in Grades 1 to 3 remains 100 per cent in French.
“Intensity means front-end loading the beginning years of the program with 100 per cent instructional time in French,” they wrote. “This is called ‘full immersion’ and has been the approach of the (Ottawa board), the majority of Ontario English school boards and every English province across Canada over many years.”
But the Ottawa board notes it would be giving kids a head start with half-days spent learning French in kindergarten.
Sharon Lapkin, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto and a director of the French parent group, said giving all kindergarten students French instruction is “wonderful, but they’re watering it down in Grade 1,” which could affect proficiency.
As well, she said, if there’s demand, “the principle of the thing is, do we want to provide an education people are asking for, or do we not?”
Jim Croll, a professor appointed to examine French Immersion in New Brunswick seven years ago, said children starting with a later immersion program are less likely to drop out, which has the added benefit of delaying the early “streaming” of more affluent kids into the program.
“Everything seemed at that time to, contrarily, point to later immersion as being better,” he said.
The province now begins immersion in Grade 3, though there’s been a recent push to move it back to Grade 1. His report had recommended Grade 5.
“As an educator, I think our recommendations were very sound,” said Croll, of the University of New Brunswick. “If a child reaches Grade 5 and then makes that transition, she or he is coming from a place where they can make an intelligent decision, instead of being thrown into Grade 1 or a preschool situation of French Immersion that’s fulfilling the parents’ needs.”
For Peel, while not everyone agreed with the cap, no one could argue against having a quality program, said Scott Moreash, associate director of education. In Peel, some 15,685 elementary students out of 111,018 are in immersion.
“I’m not going to tell you (Canadian Parents for French) loved the idea of limiting French Immersion enrolment, because they don’t, but because we were able to come at this from a program perspective, it’s not possible for (the group) to argue that we ought not to deliver a quality French program. From our perspective, we wish we didn’t have to limit enrolment.”
Bibliography: Rushowy, K. (2015). French Immersion growth causing pain for Ontario boards | Toronto Star. [online] thestar.com. Available at: http://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2015/11/22/french-immersion-growth-causing-pain-for-ontario-boards.html [Accessed 24 Nov. 2015].