Ontario schools: Pardon our French immersion

By Chantal Braganza - Published on November 18, 2015
School boards across Ontario are struggling to meet the demands of French immersion programs.

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Greg Baetz put his oldest daughter, Peyton, in French immersion from her first year of kindergarten, hoping she’d become fluent in a way he and his wife weren’t. “We were Core French students,” the Brantford resident says, referring to the provincially mandated French education that English elementary students must receive from at least Grades 4 through 8. “We would have loved the chance for immersion, knowing what we know about it now.”

Now in Grade 2, Peyton is among the top students in her class, says Baetz, who represents the Brantford chapter of Canadian Parents for French. “She can read, write, spell and comes home singing in French. And my younger daughter Paige will sing songs with her.” Until recently, however, Baetz was concerned that Paige, now two, wouldn’t get the same early French experience as her older sister.

School boards across the province are struggling to meet the growing demand of French immersion programs. The challenge is complicated by the array of stakeholders, from parents to policymakers to researchers, many with differing ideas on how to deliver French immersion and how to help students become fluent—and stay that way. 

Where Baetz lives, the Grand Erie District School Board proposed a number of program restructuring options over the past few weeks to alleviate the pressure of rising French immersion registration. An early one included offering French immersion in more schools to more evenly distribute students across the board — immersion programs at some schools are at over capacity while others are far below capacity  — but parents largely objected to the number of school transfers that would have resulted. Another proposal involved cutting down the need for space by eliminating French immersion classes for junior and senior kindergarten, which similarly incensed parents and was recently rejected by the Ministry of Education.

As is the case in much of Ontario, registration in French immersion programs for elementary schools is rising in Brantford, even as general elementary school registration in that area has declined over the past five years, and bilingualism is stagnating nationally. Currently about 1,150 students in the Grand Erie District School Board are registered in the program. By 2024, that number is expected to rise to 1,555, with the majority concentrated in a couple of schools.

While school boards receive funding for each French immersion student, Grand Erie chair Carol Ann Sloat says seeking additional money to accommodate more students simply isn’t an option. Since the issue is student distribution among schools, with some classes at or over capacity, “the province has told us that they won’t support increased French immersion funding because there is space for these programs, just not all in one spot,” she says.

Similarly, at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, where 68 per cent of senior kindergarten students are enrolled in French immersion, a disagreement erupted this fall over proposed changes to its French program. When the board issued a report suggesting a 50/50 bilingual program be applied to all kindergarten classes, immersion or not, parents protested on two fronts: those who felt their child’s early exposure to French would be cut back, and those who didn’t want the choice to learn French being automatically made for their children. Also contentious for parents of French immersion students in grade school was the proposal to reduce the amount of the school day taught in French to 60 per cent, down from 100 per cent in Grade 1, and 80 per cent in Grades 2 and 3. The board wanted to accommodate teaching certain subjects such as math in English only – the preference of many parents.

“I can see how some parents would be concerned about the 50/50 kindergarten split, but from an educational point of view, it’s a good idea,” says James Cummins, professor emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. “Grade 1 is a tough year for some kids in terms of starting to learn how to read. It moves from a very relaxed, play-focused situation to something that’s more high stakes in Grade 1. So to start that off with no French beforehand is a little problematic.”

In terms of changing English-to-French ratios, however, the specific numbers might not be so important, says Cummins," a leading expert on second-language literacy development. “Groups such as Canadian Parents for French and some of my colleagues might see this as heresy—any dilution on the amount of French is seen as backtracking—but there’s no data to suggest that any particular amount of French is better than the other.”

On the whole, however, the consensus is that more French earlier on is better, says Janette Pelletier, a professor at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at OISE. “The premise behind French immersion is that these children would otherwise be hearing English at home … It means school time would give them more opportunity to develop French.”

Data indicates that among the Ottawa-Carlton’s roster of French immersion students, certain groups are underrepresented, says Nadia Towaij, a superintendent of instruction at the board and one of the authors of the report that suggested the immersion changes. These groups include newcomer students still learning English, children from low-income families, boys, and children with special needs.

After consulting parents to review its French as a Second Language program in 2007, Ottawa-Carleton decided to change the language of instruction for math from French to English. “We saw an increase in the proportion of students with special needs and English language learners who enrolled in our French immersion program in the middle years.” 

She adds that the majority of parents still show a preference for math being taught in English. “So part of that determination is their comfort level: I can work with my child at home and support them in mathematics.” The board will vote on the proposal later this month. 

Grand Erie, on the other hand, will continue to search for a solution to its space problem. With no additional funding from the Ministry of Education for more French immersion spaces and its kindergarten phase-out proposal shut down, the decision will be tough.

Baetz says the local Canadian Parents for French board proposed a cap on the number of students entering the program as a temporary solution, but acknowledges it’s not ideal.

“Any kids with an older sibling in the program would be able to join first—but there’s so little room that if you offer 45 spaces to students in junior kindergarten, there’s a good chance that grandfathering will only allow students with siblings into the program.”

“This is not an easy thing for any board to struggle with, for students who want to come to our schools,” says Sloat, the board chair. “We try to be receptive. Are we going to make everyone happy? No, unfortunately, but we are trying.”

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