Halton District School Board may delay entry into French immersion by one year

The Halton District School Board will ask trustees Wednesday to vote to push back entry into French immersion until Grade 2, in an effort to curb growing enrolment that “has created issues with program viability” in both the English and French streams in elementary schools.

Board says growth in French immersion registration threatens integrity of English and French streams

The push by parents to get their kids into French immersion has school boards worried. Matt Galloway spoke with teacher Andrew Campbell, and with Poleen Grewal. She is the superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Peel District School Board. 12:38

The Halton District School Board will ask trustees Wednesday to vote to push back entry into French immersion until Grade 2 in an effort to curb growing enrolment that "has created issues with program viability" in both the English and French streams in elementary schools.

The board will present its recommendations, reached after months of public consultations, at a meeting of trustees on Wednesday. Trustees would then decide on the recommendations on June 15.

The move comes as boards across the GTA deal with growing enrolment in French immersion that has led to dwindling class sizes in English streams and difficulty filling teaching positions in the French immersion stream with qualified candidates.

According to statistics compiled by advocacy group Canadian Parents for French, the number of eligible students enrolled in French immersion in Ontario rose from 7.4 per cent in 2009-2010 to 9.8 per cent in 2013-2014.

For the Halton board, pushing back enrolment in French immersion from grade 1 to grade 2, "will provide an additional year for parents to understand their child as a learner prior to making a decision to enter French immersion," according to the report that will be presented to trustees.

"This additional time provides more opportunities for teachers to speak to parents about their child and for parents to make a more informed decision about whether FI is the right fit for their child," the report says.

It also satisfies the preference by stakeholders, particularly parents, who prefer early entry into the program, which the report defined as being between kindergarten and Grade 3. It also helps the board maintain current configurations of English and French programming at its schools, the report notes.

Parents want to 'get their kids ahead'

The Halton board's efforts follow changes a few years ago by the Peel District School Board to cap enrolment in French immersion or risk compromising the integrity of its English programs.

Poleen Grewal, superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said the decision followed a review in 2011-2012 of the board's French immersion program amid growing challenges to find qualified, committed teachers to fill permanent positions.

"For the board and administration, the number-one priority was to deliver a quality program that we believed was at risk at that time because to find those qualified teachers was getting more and more difficult," Grewal told CBC's Metro Morning on Tuesday.

According to Grewal, 25 per cent of all Grade 1 students in the Peel board were enrolled in French immersion before it began its review.

"And that number was steadily increasing because we had an open enrolment, and we knew if we had not capped those programs we might be today sitting at 30, 35 per cent, which would mean the integrity of our English programs at some of our neighbourhood schools would be jeopardized," Grewal said.

The board will soon launch another review, which will also look at things like achievement among French immersion students, she said.

Teacher Andrew Campbell, who writes about education-related issues, said the rise of French immersion can be attributed to two factors. One, that parents who themselves took French immersion now want their children to follow in their footsteps.

As well, and "probably a bit more concerning, is that there's been societal changes where parents now see it as their role to get their kids ahead, to put their kids in something that's a little bit better than everyone else to give their kids an advantage," Campbell told Metro Morning.

"It's a way for parents to get their kids ahead of other kids by putting them in a program that's optional and free and part of the public system."

French immersion stats needed

While public education is designed to reduce inequities in society by giving all children a strong educational start, French immersion streams come close to creating a two-tiered system, he said.

Research shows that kids in French immersion often come from wealthier families with highly educated parents, Campbell said. These classes also tend to have fewer boys, and fewer special-needs children.

"We know that learning is best in a heterogeneous classroom, and a classroom that's diverse that has a lot of different perspectives, has a lot of different abilities," Campbell said.

As well, he noted, "kids who are left behind in what some people will call the English ghetto, they're losing out because there are engaged families that aren't part of their classrooms, there are engaged students who are leaders in their classrooms that they're not there to see model how to learn properly."

On top of that, he said, despite increasing enrolment numbers, there's no clear data that indicates how effective French immersion programs are.

"The most concerning thing is if you want to graduate from an Ontario public school you have to show proficiency in the English language," he said.

"But if you've gone through for French Immersion, there's no test, there's no way to know, there are no stats to prove how effective the program is, and I think that's a huge problem."

With files from Metro Morning