Catholic board defers decision on French Immersion

The Northwest Catholic District School Board on Tuesday night decided to defer a motion on whether or not to continue its French Immersion program to its March meeting in order to gather more information and to ensure all trustees could have a say on the issue.
The decision came following a report by Superintendent of Education Al Cesiunas and Director of Education Laurie Bizero in which they recommended discontinuing the program on a year-by-year basis beginning this fall due to declining enrolment.
Dryden trustees John Borst and Rob vanOort, who also is the board’s vice-chair, were absent from Tuesday night’s meeting.
During discussions, Fort Frances trustee Anne Marie Fitzgerald made a motion to support the program, seconded by Harold Huntley, another Fort Frances trustee.
Fitzgerald and Huntley later withdrew the motion after being informed by board chair Gerry Rousseau that, if defeated, it would mean the end of the French Immersion program altogether.
Instead, the trustees agreed to defer the matter until their March 22 meeting.
Prior to discussing the issue, the board heard a presentation from Marie Brady, president of the local chapter of Canadian Parents for French. About a dozen CPF members and concerned parents also attended Tuesday night’s meeting.
Brady had spoken to the board about French Immersion last year, urging trustees to support the program and look into why attrition rates were so high in the early grades.
“In a year, nothing has happened from the board’s perspective and we’re very disappointed,” she said.
“I’m here with strong words,” she warned. “We’re fighting for this program.”
A decision to end the program would affect not only the 13 youngsters currently enrolled in the French senior kindergarten program at St. Michael’s, she argued, but all 145 students enrolled in the board’s FI classes through Grade 8.
“I would like to challenge the board if they have considered the ramifications of discarding the program,” Brady added.
Rather than moving to the English stream with the Catholic board, parents may decide to move their children to the public board, she warned.
As well, parents with an older child already in FI and a younger one who would have gone into the program may decide to move both into the English stream.
And if the board decides to phase-out French Immersion on a year-by-year basis, it may have trouble keeping its FI teachers due to a lack of job security.
“Who’s to say they’ll stick around to be phased out?” Brady asked.
Last March, the board only had 14 students enrolled in FSK for that fall. By September, there were 19.
“The people do come. There are parents waiting to see what your decision is before they enroll,” Brady noted. “They’re looking to the experts to be committed to the program.”
Brady added she and other CPF members went to the board office to talk to administration three times before the Christmas break, but that nothing ever came of those meetings.
“We are all very upset by the way the board has handled this particular issue,” she said.
“The board has to find out why children are not registering and why they transfer out,” she stressed. “I challenge the board and administration to work together with stakeholders and Canadian Parents for French . . . to help us support this program and get it back to the levels where it once was.”
Following Brady’s presentation, Cesiunas presented his report to the board, including statistics on enrolment and attrition in the FI program.
He stressed English-language boards like the local Catholic one are not required by the Ministry of Education to offer FI.
A declining population across the district, as well as high attrition rates in the early grades of the program, are contributing to the decline in enrolment.
For example, the FSK class of 1998/99 began with 26 students. But by the time it had reached Grade 3 in 2001/02, there were only 14 students in the class.
Such small class sizes are not financially sustainable, Cesiunas argued.
Superintendent of Business Chris Howarth noted the board receives $304 in funding for each student enrolled in FI.
“With 13 pupils enrolled, that barely covers the cost of the teacher,” he noted. “You really need a class of 20 pupils to break-even in this business.
“The dollars are just not there, unfortunately.”
“That $300 is over and above normal funding,” Brady countered. “That’s over and above what you would receive for a student in the English program.
“It’s not meant to pay the teacher. You are already getting the base funding to pay the teacher.”
In its report, senior administration recommended the board begin phasing out the FI program beginning with FSK in 2005/06 until June, 2013, when the last Grade 8 FI class graduates.
“I think we’re jumping the gun here. This is too early to decide,” said Huntley, who urged the board to wait another month to see if more parents would enroll their children in French Immersion.
Fitzgerald came out strongly in favour of the program. She referred to the board’s strategic plan to make Catholic schools visible in the community.
“We might be our own worst enemy in this,” she argued. “Every year, we say the program may not run. That’s not going to inspire confidence in parents.
“Perhaps we haven’t been proactive enough in saying this is a vibrant program.
“I just can’t see, with the investment we’ve had, the history, and the success . . . I’m not prepared to vote to end it. I can’t,” Fitzgerald concluded.
Rousseau said he was willing to delay the decision until the board’s next meeting.
“I don’t know if that’s good enough on our part,” retorted Fitzgerald. “There are less children all over. We have to take that into account. We have to do a little more in our Visible Catholic Schools to promote the program.”
She noted there is much more the board can do encourage parents to enroll their children in French Immersion.
“I’d like to see us say we’ll run the program this year and start working on next year right now,” Fitzgerald stressed. “I don’t want to see the program go. I think it’s a wonderful asset to our board.
“It’s having a bit of a rough patch,” she admitted. “[But] I’d like to see what we can do together before we ring the death knell.”
Huntley noted the board’s policy of having a minimum of 20 students to run an FSK class was established in 1988.
“Funding and everything has changed 100 percent [since then,]” he noted. “We need to look at that policy before we throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Sioux Lookout trustee Cathy Bowen expressed doubt the board could change people’s perceptions of the program.
“I think that’s what we have to work on,” replied Fitzgerald. “That’s why I don’t feel, in all good conscience, I can vote to end the program when perhaps we didn’t do all we could do to promote it.”
Bowen said she rather not have a vote on Fitzgerald’s motion with two trustees absent. “It’s such an important issue, I would rather see it delayed until March,” she remarked.
Fitzgerald and Huntley agreed to withdraw the motion to support the FI program for another year, and to discuss the issue further at the next meeting.
Rousseau told Brady he would meet with her before that time to further discuss the French Immersion program.
“The key here is we’ve received a commitment from the chair to work with us,” Brady said afterwards. “In March, we still need a commitment. Not a one-year-at-a-time commitment, but a full commitment to the program.”
Perhaps French Immersion should begin in Grade 1 instead of SK, she suggested. Also, instead of setting a minimum enrolment number, perhaps the board should look at proportions of the whole student body.
“There are lots of avenues to take instead of cutting the program,” Brady stressed.
The board’s report on FI only shows enrolment numbers in Fort Frances over the past few years, she added. It does not compare those statistics with the English stream, or with the board’s successful FI program at St. Joseph’s in Dryden.
“There are class sizes of 14 and 15 students in the English program,” Brady noted. “The board needs more information to make a proper decision on the issue.”