No international language learning during school hours, TCDSB staff recommend

The Toronto Catholic District School Board is considering major changes to a popular language program at a special board meeting Thursday, angering parents who like the program and instructors afraid of losing their jobs.

The changes put a popular program and the jobs of up to 80 instructors at risk, critics say

The international language program, through which students learned a language other than English or French, is at risk in Toronto's Catholic schools as the board considers offering it outside of regular school hours. (iStock)

The Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) is considering major changes to a popular language program at a special board meeting Thursday, angering parents who like the program and instructors afraid of losing their jobs.

The board will look at a report recommending the International Language Program only be taught outside of regular school hours beginning in September. Thousands of students at 44 elementary schools receive 30 minutes of daily instruction in a language other than English or French through the program.

The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the board's headquarters at 80 Sheppard Ave. E. 

"It's just completely devastating and we were not expecting this," Oksana Cherchyk told CBC Toronto. Her daughter attends Josyf Cardinal Slipyj Catholic School, one of three schools in the district that teaches Ukrainian as part of the program.

Cherchyk said it's much more than a language program, and that it helps students of eastern European descent in the area learn about their history and culture.

"It's not just a simple 30 minutes of subject instruction, it's a heritage language and it's something that is part of our kids, it's part of who they are," said Cherchyk.

Oksana Cherchyk's daughter Dryna learns Ukrainian through the International Language Program at Josyf Cardinal Slipyj Catholic School in Etobicoke, and she hopes her son Andriy will, too, when he attends the school in the future. (Submitted by Oksana Cherchyk )

The program has been in place for almost five decades and offers instruction from native speakers in languages such as Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Filipino, Mandarin and Ukrainian, depending on the cultural makeup of the area. Forty-four schools participated in the program last year.

Under the new format, classes could only be taught before school, after school, during lunch periods or on Saturdays, instead of being integrated into the regular school day.

'Our hands are tied'

The decision is the direct result of a labour dispute between the union representing classroom teachers, language instructors who are not certified by the Ontario College of Teachers, and the school board.

International-language teaching is not considered part of the core provincial education curriculum, so it does not count towards the legally-mandated 300 minutes of "regular instructional time."

Therefore, schools that teach international languages have historically stayed open for an extra 30 minutes each school day as part of an "extended day" program.

This created a bifurcated system where some schools would end at 3:00 p.m. and others ended at 3:30 p.m.

In June 2017, the Toronto Elementary Catholic Teachers Association lodged a complaint with the board, arguing it was unfair to require classroom teachers at schools that offer the program to stay for an extra 30 minutes each day.

Our hands are tied based on the arbitrator's decision and what the ministry policy is in regard to this.- Dan Koenig, associate director of academic services at the TCDSB.

An arbitrator decided in favour of the teachers and now the school board believes the language program "may not be lawfully offered" during regular school hours, according to the report being considered.

"Our hands are tied based on the arbitrator's decision and what the ministry policy is in regard to this," said Dan Koenig, associate director of academic services at the TCDSB.

"We're really between a rock and a hard place."

Koenig pointed out that the jobs of language instructors, who are not certified by the Ontario College of Teachers and are represented by a different union, are safe at least until the end of 2019, even if their hours are reduced under a new format.

Cancellation risks jobs and students' education, advocates say

Advocates of the program say integrating language learning into students' daily routine benefits their academic performance, and that teaching outside the regular classroom hours will be disruptive. Also, they fear participation in the program will fall if it is offered outside of regular school hours.

Maria Rizzo, the vice-chair of the board, will be voting against the change in format. She criticized the way the decision was made, as it was announced abruptly on the last day of school.

Maria Rizzo, vice-chair of the TCDSB, said the changes will put the jobs of almost 80 instructors at risk. (Submitted by Toronto Catholic District School Board)

"To be informed that the program is going to be cancelled in September, with no consultation, with no notification, when people are about to go on family holidays … Imagine what that is like for parents and families," Rizzo said.

She also said it will put the jobs of more than 80 instructors at risk.

Rizzo said one potential solution is to have the provincial government amend the law to make international language instruction a part of the provincial curriculum.