Local group lobbies to keep French Immersion

Members of the local chapter of Canadian Parents for French used a parable from the New Testament at the Northwest Catholic District School Board’s monthly meeting Saturday to illustrate their views regarding the French Immersion program.
In her presentation to the board, Marie Brady, a local member of the CPF, read the parable of the plantation owner who wanted to cut down a fig tree that was not producing fruit.
The gardener objected, Brady explained, asking the owner to let him tend the tree for one more year—to give it one more chance to bear fruit before chopping it down.
Brady asked the board to consider the French Immersion program in light of this parable. “Give it the attention it needs in order to flourish,” she urged.
The board ultimately voted in favour of allowing the French senior kindergarten class at St. Michael’s School to run this fall despite the current enrolment of only 15 children.
“Let’s tend it for another year, fertilize it, cultivate it, and see if it will bear fruit,” said Education Director John Madigan, reflecting the language of the parable.
The Catholic board had set a minimum enrolment of 20 children for the French SK program, largely because of attrition rates. Every year, French Immersion class sizes drop due to families moving or deciding to put their children in the English program.
For example, the class that began in 1998-99 had 26 children enrolled. Before the end of that school year, it had lost five students, with 21 entering Grade 1.
Three more left in Grade 1 and five more left in Grade 2, leaving only 13 students entering Grade 3. That’s an attrition rate of 50 percent over three years.
“To us, that’s like a red flag waving. Shouldn’t somebody be investigating this?” Brady asked of the high attrition rates.
“Fiscally, we just can’t operate a school system with classes of 14. It isn’t sustainable,” Superintendent of Business Chris Howarth said at a meeting with parents earlier this month to discuss the future of the French SK program.
But lower enrolment is a reality affecting not only French Immersion classes, but many others across the region.
Board members received a table in their meeting agenda outlining population changes from 1996-2001. In Northwestern Ontario during that time, the population dropped by 3.8 percent.
In Fort Frances, it dropped by 5.4 percent.
Madigan also noted in a report to the board that it is not required by the Ministry of Education to provide French Immersion.
“There is no obligation on the part of the board to do so and therefore parents ought not to expect that these are programs to which their children have a right,” he wrote.
Madigan also explained the ministry requires school boards to teach the Core French program—the French taught to children in the English-language system—from Grades 4-8.
The NCDSB also offers Core French in Grades 1-3, but receives no additional funding to do so.
While the immersion program has been granted a temporary reprieve, much work needs to be done if it is to continue in the future.
“The board was very clear that it’s just for one more year,” Madigan noted. Should enrolment remain below the minimum of 20 students for French SK again next year, the class would have to be axed, he added.
“We will continue to work to increase those numbers,” Brady pledged. “We’re dedicated to working with the board to help renew the program.”
At Saturday’s board meeting, Brady, accompanied by three other members of the local CPF, explained some of the work the parents’ group does to encourage district children to learn French.
“We have raised more than $100,000 in the past eight to 10 years, which we spent on French activities for students,” Brady noted.
The group donates $500 a year to core and immersion French teachers for resources, as well as gives money to the Fort Frances Public Library and school libraries for books in French.
They sponsor an annual French speech contest and send three local winners to the provincial competition in Toronto—all expenses paid.
The CPF also gives bursaries to high school students who plan to study French in university, and pays for French entertainers to visit schools here.
They have helped sponsor class trips to Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec, and recently helped a group of Fort High students pay for a school trip to Paris over March Break.
“We are always willing to work in partnership with boards, schools, and teachers,” Brady said.
She urged the board to raise the profile of the French Immersion program, to find out why the attrition rates are so high, and to talk to parents about what they’d like to see in it.
“It needs and deserves a comprehensive review,” Brady said, adding the CPF is willing to help. “We’re ready to assist the board in any way we can.”
She suggested more advertising and a brochure for parents outlining what French Immersion is and what the benefits are.
Brady also said children’s accomplishments in French need to be recognized.
“If you had a child in ballet lessons, and you took her every Saturday morning to her lessons, but there was no recital at the end of the year, you’d be asking yourself, ‘Is my daughter learning to dance?’” she said.
“This is how it begins to feel sometimes for our French Immersion parents,” Brady added. “French has been removed from our Christmas concerts and school masses.
“If children can’t share their French outside the classroom, how can we maintain their enthusiasm?”
While the board agreed to allow the French SK class to run one more year, Madigan said it would be up to school principals, teachers, and parents to follow through on Brady’s suggestions.
Madigan again stressed those students already enrolled in French Immersion were not at risk of losing their program. Their concern was only with the French SK class for this fall.
“If the board agrees to run French immersion in SK, it is committing to continue that group right through to Grade 8,” he said. “The board’s policy is if they’ve started, they’ll see it through to the end.
“The board is committed to that.”
Another public meeting will be held next Wednesday (April 7) at 7 p.m. at St. Michael’s School for parents looking for information about French immersion.
Ted Karp, the executive director of CPF Ontario, will be the guest speaker.