Proposal to move elementary students based on language upsets parents

Some Ottawa parents are angry with a public school board proposal that could see either English- or French-language immersion programs disappear from their children's elementary school because of low enrolment.

Policy suggests immersion programs could be cut if enrolment falls

Hopewell Avenue Public School in Ottawa, Jan. 10, 2017. (CBC)

Some Ottawa parents are angry with a public school board proposal that could see either English- or French-language immersion programs disappear from their children's elementary schools because of low enrolment.

In an October 2016 document called the Elementary School Program Framework, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board says it's aiming to have approximately one-and-a-half classes' worth of students per grade level, per language program, in its elementary schools.

The goal is to "ensure adequate flexibility for student placement," the document says.

But it could mean that if a grade level at a particular school doesn't have 37 students — the equivalent of one-and-a-half classes — in a particular language program, that program could end up being consolidated with one at another school.

'This can't be right'

"My first reaction was disbelief. I thought, well, this can't be right," said Kate Jaimet, whose daughter is in Grade 3 in the English-language stream at Hopewell Avenue Public School.

The majority of the students in the Old Ottawa South elementary school, including Jaimet's other daughter, are studying French immersion.

Kate Jaimet is concerned that an Ottawa-Carleton District School Board proposal could see her daughter's English-language programs at Hopewell Avenue Public School be cut. (CBC)

Jaimet told CBC News that parents have met to talk about the implications of the proposal, and they share her concerns that their children will not only be separated from siblings and friends, but also bussed to schools outside the community.  

"You're saying to little children that if they're not able to go to school in a second language, they can't go to their community school. And I just think that's wrong." 

She said one of the reasons her family moved to Old Ottawa South was so her daughters could easily walk to Hopewell. Jaimet said an English-language school board should be required to provide English-language instruction — and it should be at her children's school.

"English is the majority in this board, but in some schools it happens that kids in the English program are the minority," said Jaimet.

"So I think the trustees have to start seeing themselves as defenders of minority language rights, and to say, 'We're an English board and we have to defend the right of these kids to go to school in English.'" 

Trustee to bring motion forward

Shawn Menard, the school board trustee for Rideau-Vanier and Capital wards, said he'll be putting forward a motion at the Jan. 17 school board meeting to remove the student-level clause.

"It's a poison pill," Menard told CBC News.

School board staff have been very clear, Menard said, as to what would happen if trustees pass the proposal.

"We would see many more silos of either just a French immersion school or just an English-language school," he said. "And that's problematic."

The framework document, Menard said, talks about the value that comes from students being able to walk to school, and not having to move from one school to another, because of how it can affect academic outcomes.

He said that requiring 37 students per grade for language programs runs counter to that logic. 

"Many, many of our schools are currently English and French immersion. And that's good because if you switch out of French immersion to English, or vice versa, you don't have to switch schools," said Menard.

"But with this [proposal] you may be bussed out of your community and you may lose the friends you've made. And transitions become difficult." 

Menard said the vote on the proposal is scheduled for Jan. 30, and if trustees vote in favor of it, some students might be moved as early as September of this year. The outcome of the vote could affect dozens of Ottawa elementary schools, he said.

Not a 'hard cap'

In a statement, OCDSB director of education Jennifer Adams said the levels set out in the framework document were not intended to be a "hard cap" but rather the ideal number to "ensure effective instruction."

"This is an area of the framework that has generated a lot of interest throughout the consultation," Adams said in her statement. 

"Staff is in the process of reviewing and revising the draft document based on the feedback received."

Adams was not available for an interview Tuesday.