Coast Mountains School District looking to boost French immersion

French immersion program will not change in Terrace, B.C., Kitimat and Hazelton next year

A group from Kitimat Parents for French spoke to the board of Coast Mountains School District at a meeting in Terrace June 22

The French immersion program will not change in Terrace, Kitimat and Hazelton next year, and the Coast Mountains School District plans to work towards reducing the number of students leaving the program in the senior secondary grades.

The recommendation came from a committee who has been looking at whether the Grade 10-12 French immersion program should change to incorporate the official French certification test known as DELF (Diplôme d’études en Langue Française).  That would re-frame the program and would  mean the district would stop offering French immersion as part of a double Dogwood graduation.

The committee rejected the idea and advised the school district not to change the program. “DELF was something we investigated but nobody felt was a good option for the students,” said Maxine Champion, the chair of the committee, principal of Ecole Mountainview in Terrace, and French immersion coordinator for the district.

She said students would have to travel outside of the district for the DELF exam, which would add cost and hinder the already struggling senior-secondary program.

The committee said cutting the dual Dogwood graduation program would also be a bad move.

“We felt that if we cut the program and then streamed kids into core, then they are going to lose a lot of their French fluency,” Champion said.

The committee also talked about online courses and other ideas to improve the shrinking French immersion program. It recommended the district form another committee, this one to recommend ways to keep students in French immersion as they advance through the grades.

But how that committee will be structured won’t be decided until September.

Kitimat trustee Margaret Warcup made a motion for the board to decide on a plan in September, with a smaller committee and shorter time frame compared to the original recommendations.

One of those original recommendations would be to keep the French immersion program as is for two years while looking for ways to increase student numbers.

“We need a plan and we need to know where we are going and I would like the plan to be faster then what this recommendation says,” Warcup said. “We want it to be feasible and we want it to work.”

Terrace trustee Art Erasmus opposed the motion, saying he feels that having a plan ready for September is fast.

“I like the recommendation, but we are just about at the end of June, and September is the next time the board meets. A September report is probably a little bit ambitious,” he said.

Other trustees voted to pass Warcup’s motion, so the school board will craft its committee plan in September.

The current French Immersion programs are set up with all courses in French during elementary, 50 to 80 per cent of courses in French for Grades 7-9, and six courses in French for Grades 10-12.

In this school district there are 422 French immersion students out of 4,419 total students — just under 10 per cent.  That is actually up from five years ago, when 6.6 per cent or 353 students were in French immersion and at a time when the general school population has declined.

In Terrace, there are 160 French immersion students in elementary and 100 in middle and high school. That means there are just over 13 full-time equivalent teachers for French immersion.

In Kitimat, there are 67 students in elementary and 28 in middle and high school and the equivalent of five teaching positions.

There are 58 elementary students in Hazelton and nine students in the higher grades  being taught by the equivalent of four teaching positions.

Patrick Witwicki from the French speaking association for the northwest, AFFNO, said he is happy the French immersion program is stable for next year. He is also glad the board, teachers and parents will work together to bolster the program.

“Especially at the middle school level, it seems that they are just losing students left and right, especially in Terrace, which is really concerning,” Witwicki said.

One concern is that students tend to drop French immersion because it conflicts with other courses, and decisions are often made based on student preference instead of with a view to the future, he said.

Witwicki says the solution is teaching students and parents the value of being bilingual, which opens more job opportunities and makes it easier to learn other languages.