'An impossible choice': Parents plead with TDSB to save French immersion classes at their school

Parents of French immersion students at one Toronto school are trying to persuade the school board to change its mind, after receiving an email telling them to put their children in the English-language program or switch to a different school.

Kids will have to go to different school for French immersion program, board says

Four-year-old Blair Charbonneau, seen with father Jay Charbonneau and mother Lauren Chang MacLean, is one of 14 kindergarten students whose parents have been told they can't continue in French immersion at Palmerston Avenue Public School next year. (Janis Lempera)

Parents of French immersion students at one Toronto school are trying to persuade the school board to change its mind, after receiving an email telling them to put their children in the English-language program or switch to a different school.

"It's devastating," said Lauren Chang MacLean, whose four-year-old daughter is in junior kindergarten at Palmerston Avenue Junior Public School near Bloor and Bathurst streets.

"It feels like an impossible choice made with no regard for the kids."

Chang MacLean said she and her husband specifically moved into the neighbourhood to be close to the school, so their daughter could attend French immersion classes.  

They and the parents of 13 other kindergarten children received the email on Tuesday, telling them they needed to make a decision by this coming Monday about what they planned to do next school year.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is cutting French immersion class at the school at a time when the programs have increased in popularity and English-language enrolment has declined..

Based on current numbers, only a handful of students are scheduled to be part of the English stream for kindergarten at Palmerston Avenue next school year, according to the board.

The families have been told they can move their children to French immersion at another local school, Dewson Street Junior Public School, about two-and-a-half kilometres away in the College Street and Dovercourt Road area.

Another stress for the family is childcare. Blair Charbonneau, right, attends the after-school program at Palmerston Avenue Public School. Her younger sister Penelope is scheduled to start at the daycare there in September. (Submitted by Lauren Chang MacLean)

Frustrated parents have been calling and sending emails to TDSB officials suggesting other options, such as increasing the school's catchment area to boost the size of the English class while still maintaining two French-language kindergarten classes.

They received an emailed response from the local TDSB superintendent of education Mike Gallagher, forwarded to CBC News by parents. 

'Neither feasible nor practical'

The parents' suggestions are "neither feasible nor practical at this time," Gallagher's email says, as catchment changes are made many months in advance.

"The decision to redirect students to Dewson will remain," the email concludes.

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said in a phone interview that dropping one French kindergarten class is part of a long-term strategy to ensure the English stream is viable.

"We have to make sure there's a strong English program in the school, especially considering we're an English language school board," he said.

"If we don't address this now, it's only going to get worse."

An added wrinkle for Chang MacLean's family is that her daughter, Blair Charbonneau, has French heritage, so they have an extra reason to keep her in French immersion.

Chang MacLean wrote an email to their local school board trustee and superintendent, telling them her daughter "is insanely proud that she can say 'bonjour' and 'merci.' She wants to speak French so she can speak to her Francophone grandfather. 

"If you want to work in the highest levels at this country, you really only need to ask Peter MacKay how that's going for him in terms of what kind of barriers just not speaking French provide in this country," she said, referring to the questions regarding the federal Conservative leadership hopeful not being bilingual.

The TDSB said these families are being offered a spot in French immersion at a school two kilometres away, and that parents are never guaranteed a space in the closest school.

Chang MacLean's husband, Jay Charbonneau, said this will also affect the family's daycare situation. Palmerston Avenue has a daycare program, where their toddler has been accepted to start in September, and their older daughter is in the after-school program.

The TDSB confirmed there is a daycare at Dewson Street Junior Public School, but couldn't say whether the affected parents would be guaranteed a spot.

"You need to go on those waitlists years in advance in order to get in," said Charbonneau.

"We effectively planned our lives for our children and now we're being thrown this curve ball."


Lorenda Reddekopp

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Lorenda Reddekopp is a CBC News reporter based in Toronto. She's originally from Saskatchewan. She speaks Spanish and previously lived and reported in Latin America.