TCDSB opts to keep popular program that teaches students heritage languages

Trustees with the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) have voted unanimously to preserve a popular language program at a special board meeting.

Classes will continue to be taught during regular school day

The back of students' heads can be seen as they listen to a teacher at the front of a classroom.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board voted Thursday evening to save the International Language program. (Shutterstock/Syda Productions)

Trustees from the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) have voted unanimously to preserve a popular language program at a special board meeting.

Parents, community members and teachers erupted in thunderous applause Thursday evening as the board rejected a report from staff recommending the International Language program only be taught outside of regular school hours.

The program offers thousands of elementary students 30 minutes of daily instruction in a language other than English or French.

"I was so overwhelmed with emotion; it was such a joyous moment," said Oksana Cherchyk, whose daughter learns Ukrainian at Josyf Cardinal Slipyj Catholic School, one of three schools in the district that teach Ukrainian as part of the program.

Instead, trustee Sal Piccininni introduced a motion asking the director to keep the program as a pilot for the next year, while the board works with the province "to keep international language programming ... for future years."

The board approved it, and classes will now be offered four days a week, instead of five.

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 )

Twenty-four people — students, parents, members of community organizations, and even the Italian consul general — spoke at the meeting to make the case for keeping the program.

"The community showed the board it was very united," said Luciano Schipano, an Italian instructor at St. Wilfrid Catholic School in North York. "It's a huge achievement."

Schipano was happy that the almost 80 language instructors in the district will keep their jobs.

Labour dispute put program at risk

The program was put at risk following 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."

Trustee Sal Piccininni's motion to preserve the International Language Program passed unanimously at a special TCDSB meeting on Thursday. (Submitted by Toronto Catholic District School Board)

Therefore, schools that teach international languages have historically stayed open for an extra 30 minutes each 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.

An arbitrator decided in favour of the teachers and so the school board believed it could no longer lawfully offer the program during regular school hours. So, staff proposed to offer it before school, after school or on Saturdays.   

This upset parents who liked that language classes were integrated into student's regular classes, and language instructors whose jobs would be put at risk.

The new motion is a compromise. It keeps the language program in place during school hours, allows all classroom teachers to go home at the same time, and preserves the jobs of language instructors.

Maria Rizzo, vice-chair of the TCDSB, said it was "more than a win-win-win."

Provincial approval needed

The changes still require approval from the provincial Ministry of Education.

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

The motion calls for on the ministry to amend the curriculum to allow international language classes to be taught during the 300-minute school day.

Piccininni and Rizzo both said members of the incoming government have expressed verbal support for maintaining the program during school hours.

"I am grateful and satisfied that the province stepped up to finally do the right thing for international languages for student achievement for kids and I look forward to working with them to iron out details to make this program successful," said Rizzo.

Dan Koenig, an official in the director's office, said the director of education at the school board will meet with the education minister soon to discuss next steps for the program.