Parents fear for French education

French Immersion parents are angry with a recommendation they say threatens the program in the school district in northwestern B.C.

Though smiling for the camera

French Immersion parents are angry with a recommendation which they say could significantly damage the French Immersion program in this school district.

Under consideration is a recommendation that would require a minimum class size of 15 students in Hazelton and 18 in Terrace and Kitimat in order for French Immersion courses to run. If the minimum isn’t reached, those courses would be taught online.

The board of the Coast Mountains School District decides on the recommendation at its meeting here tonight, Jan. 25.

Parents say the class size minimum is unreasonable and will cut the program in Hazelton and damage the French Immersion program across the district.

“That minimum is not attainable,” said Susan Souryadouangphon from Kitimat Parents for French, a chapter of a national organization.

“The Hazelton program won’t run… it will cut the program out… If you look at the numbers in the program [now and in the last few years] it’s not attainable.”

While numbers are healthy in the lower grades, particularly in Terrace at Ecole Mountainview, the worry is for higher grade levels once French Immersion students pass through to Grades 7 and up.

Enrolment from last September indicates that in Grades 9-12, Hazelton had nine French Immersion students last fall, Kitimat had 28, and Terrace had 38.

Souryadouangphon says her concern is how these possible changes could damage the entire French  Immersion program, which affects 432 students out of the total 4,211 enrolled in the district. That’s more than 10 per cent of the school district population.

“If [the high school program] doesn’t run, parents will start pulling their kids out of the French Immersion program [at the lower grades],” said Souryadouangphon.

The class size recommendation stems from a French Immersion advisory committee established last year with the mandate to investigate why students don’t see the program through to graduation.

The recommendations that went forward were also opposed by the parents group in Terrace.

Photo caption: Coast Mountains School Board superintendent Katherine McIntosh, board chair Shar McCrory, and secretary-treasurer Alanna Cameron conduct business at a 2016 board meeting.

Criticism also came from Patrick Witwicki of the northwest French speaking association, AFFNO, who said the recommendations do not reflect the desires of the French Immersion community.

“It shouldn’t have gone through,” he said of the recommendations, noting that two French Immersion representatives were missing at the school district committee’s meeting where the recommendations were passed.

He added that they also did not have consensus between the six committee members who were there. The decision to move the recommendations was made by a majority vote, not consensus, confirms the committee report.

Other recommendations from the committee were to utilize distance learning through the Victoria school district as a cost effective way to run the program.

But the Victoria school district no longer offers distance learning, a shift that came in December after the local advisory meeting held its final meeting at the end of November.

Souryadouangphon adds that many parents opposed the Victoria distance program because it was not interactive, something that would be key for such an arrangement.

“Online learning needs to be interactive,” she said. “There needs to be a teacher… someone who is going to support them and answer their questions… someone who is fluent in French… someone qualified.”

The Terrace chapter of Parents for French sent a letter to the school district Jan. 10, indicating that the recommendations were more about costs than actually helping the French Immersion program. It also opposed the option of distance learning.

“We feel that distance learning will ultimately erode the success of the French Immersion program,” the letter stated.

Two other school district French Immersion recommendations were put forward as well.

One suggested surveying students who do not complete the French Immersion program  about why they were leaving. It’s a foundation for finding ways to encourage other students to finish.

The other suggestion was to form an ongoing advisory committee to find ways to support the learning of French.

Souryadouangphon says she would add that exit surveys be required and collected, instead of merely suggested.

She added that any future French Immersion advisory committee needs to be required to report on their work.

The board will decide how to proceed with the French Immersion program tonight, following  presentations from Canadian Parents for French and one from  AFFNO.

Souryadouangphon said French Immersion is important because it gives students bilingual abilities which opens up more job opportunities for students after graduation.

It is also proven to develop a brain’s grey matter which has endless benefits for youth throughout their lives, she said.

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