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French Immersion and the challenge of maintaining English programs

I read with some interest Matthew Pearson’s article in the Citizen yesterday on how the demand for French language education is now outstripping that for English education in the OCDSB.

The Ottawa Parents Education Network asked this question of Trustee candidates during the past election:

11. It can be a challenge to meet the demand for French Immersion while maintaining a strong, viable English program. How important do you think it is for the Board to respond to the ever-increasing demand for French Immersion in this region?

My answer:

It is important.

The OCDSB is home to some of the highest concentrations of francophone communities in Canada, outside Quebec. The City is also home to tens of thousands of public servants – many of whom are bilingual. As such,  day to day life requires a population that is bilingual to as great an extent as is possible. French Immersion is key.

But should the call for augmented and expended French Immersion programs be instituted to the detriment of other core English programs?

I am honestly not sure.

Not every student is well-suited to French Immersion programs and require a unilingual education in their mother tongue in order to attain their educational objectives.

We also must keep in mind the needs of the newcomer populations who require ESL or FSL training in order to integrate into and participate in their new communities.

There is lots of need for all types of education. while French Immersion is a priority, I am not certain that it should be an over-riding priority.

Saying this, I suggest that the Board acts on this quickly as population trends for the region necessitate fast action.

What kind of fast action?

First, as much sense as a unified education system for the province makes sense in almost every way imaginable, the truth is that is some time down the road. Until public Boards of education and the people of Ontario turn up the heat on Queen’s Park, we will have to live with the needless duplication of a parallel faith-based system.

So failing that kind of change, the Board must, as part of its strategic planning exercise that it is currently undertaking, broaden the scope of the exercise to review the viability of English language education in the City’s schools. I really do not think that the Board can afford to offer Early Immersion in all of its schools. And I also do not believe that there is sufficient demand in some communities. But a comprehensive study of the demand versus supply of the progrmas must be undertaken in order to make changes where warranted and as soon as possible. Schools like Hopewell are already overcrowded to the point of bursting.

What kind of changes might be made as a result of such a study?

  • Perhaps school coverage areas will need to be change to reflect the demand for EFI. While they are at it, change the areas to also keep in mind that coverage zones and electoral zones do not always mesh.
  • There may be the need for new capital stock (expansions to schools) if the demand for French Immersion is very high and the demand for the English program is low.
  • Why not identify the reason why exactly parents are flocking to schools with EFI while simultaneously having the effect of – in some areas – gutting the population of another school or schools.

That final point brings up a serious question: why is this so? Why the big demand?

Some have spoken to the labour force characteristics of this town and the Public Service as its largest employer. As the PS is erroneously though of as a “unilinguals need not apply” game, some parents might think that they are setting up their children for a better shot at a PS job later in life.

But really? Does anyone actually think that this is “the” motivating factor? I cannot think of many parents who dream of a career as a public servant for their child. I’m not knocking the PS – I proudly work in it as well – but as an end goal from which to plan a 6 year old’s education path? It may be one factor among many, but surely not the overriding one.

It could also be argued that some parents prefer the schools with the immersion programs in an “elitist” way (pardon me, I am carrying my Starbucks here!). There is undeniably the perception out there that the “smarter” kids go to immersion schools and non-immersion schools are somehow one rung down the ladder.  While I personally think that this is rubbish, some parents would agree.

For my wife and I, the primary reason behind sending our child to an immersion school was simply because it just “made sense” in a town like Ottawa. French and English are heard side by side almost everywhere in the City. Francophone and Angl;ophone kids go to school together, play soccer together and are neighbours and friends on virtually every street in Ottawa. I cannot remember having any conversations with my wife about job prospects or looking down our noses at the non-immersion school.

It just made sense to us.

And I really think that this is the main reason why parents are choosing French language education over English.

It just makes sense.

But the Board should set out to prove me right or wrong, because unless we know the root causes of this phenomenon, it cannot be expected that any viable solutions will be arrived at in a timely way.


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One Comment

  1. Interesting thoughts!

    I have supply taught in French Immersion schools (as a unilingual English-speaking teacher). I can read most of the French words and sentences. However, my speaking skills are poor.

    In my opinion, the French Immersion programs are quasi-elitist. Families enroll their children for improving French language skills, and there are very few students with special needs. As such, families feel that their children will not be held back by the low-level learning and disruptive students. Who puts their children in French Immersion? In my board, families of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds do.

    If school boards want to lesson the number of students going into French Immersion, they need to offer other programs to families that will attract them. Such programs may include a focus on the arts, athletics, and other languages. Unfortunately, because of tight budgets, school boards generally offer very few specialized programs.

    School boards and the provincial government need to make the 40 minute core-French classes more enriching. One hears many times about a student completing grade 12 French and not knowing how to speak the language.

    I would support getting rid of the Roman Catholic separate school system. Unfortunately, the top three political parties have no interest in starting this discussion.

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