Thursday, September 27, 2012

French Immersion in Peel Region - Plus ça change

The Peel District School board in Ontario has made headlines this week for an all-too-familiar Canadian problem: burgeoning enrollment in French immersion, and limited capacity to accommodate the student demand.  Sadly, the board has resulted to a tried-and-failed approach to dealing with this problem - using a lottery system to determine which students will be admitted to the program.  Today, the Globe and Mail has dedicated one of its editorials to criticizing this short-sighted policy.

It is an all-too-familiar problem in this country, and one which you'd think we might have solved by now.  French immersion has been around longer than I have, and yet the current situation faced by the Peel board has been repeated in province after province, board after board, over the past 40 years.  Lotteries, line-ups and other limited access solutions have caused outrage and problems in community after community.  Indeed, I've published an article on how a similar situation in Sackville, New Brunswick in the early 1980s was the impetus for a new province-wide policy of immersion on demand where numbers warranted it.  Of course, New Brunswick has recently been in the midst of major turmoil as it overhauls its French immersion offerings.

Alas, the problem of French immersion is not a simple nut to crack.  While many boards will use program costs as an excuse for not creating programs - an issue well debunked by the Globe editorial, which refers to the federal Official Languages in Education program funding - there are some real, structural problems which require long-term thinking and serious structural adjustments.  I would argue that these require province-wide policy directions, rather than ad hoc solutions at the board level.

Take for example, the issue of teachers.  Although the Globe editorialist notes that there is currently a surplus of French teachers in the province of Ontario, that is not the same thing as having a surplus of teachers who would be competent to teach French immersion - which requires a much higher level of oral fluency and mastery - as opposed to teaching core French as a school subject.  Teacher shortages have been a problem for decades with the French immersion programs.  Most parents ideally want a fluent francophone teacher, and in many jurisdictions, the available teachers who meet that criterion are currently teaching in the French-language schools targeted at the francophone minority.  Importing teachers as a strategy used in many provinces, but many Quebec francophone teachers have no desire to teach French immersion in Oakville or Calgary or Nanaimo. 

Then there is the question of teacher redundancy.  A jump in immersion enrolments from 10 to 25% of the grade 1 population over a decade cannot simply be accommodated by hiring more teachers.  There is a question of what to do with the English-language grade 1 teachers in the board who are no longer needed to teach in the English stream.  That is a major staffing challenge that requires long term thinking - and a compassionate approach to the existing teachers.

That is just the tip of the iceberg with this long-standing challenge of implementing French language instruction in Canada.  Solving it requires long-term strategy, a deliberate and well-thought-out set of provincial policies, and effective communication of educational policy objectives to the public.  I agree with the main thrusts of the Globe's editorial - access to quality language education should not be a matter of luck of the draw - but solving this problem requires long-term vision, teacher training and recruitment, and creative thinking about how to deal with the displacements created by new educational priorities and parental preferences.

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At 3:59 pm, Blogger Skinny Dipper said...

One problem in trying to hire more teachers for French Immersion programs is that those teachers would belong to the same local unions as non-French Immersion teachers. Due to seniority rights, one cannot layoff non-French Immersion teachers in order to hire more FI teachers.

As some people have mentioned, the federal government does contribute some money for the FI programs. The problem with this funding is that it may not be stable in the long run. The provinces and local school boards do not wish to be stuck having to fund extra in order to compensate for potential federal cutbacks (no matter which party is in power).

I would suggest that the school boards should make the English-stream more compelling for parents. That may mean offering specialized programs such as the Arts, Sciences, Athletics/Healthy Living, or other languages. This might attract parents who prefer some specialty over the generic English language program. These programs would need to be cost effective. One should look at the Calgary and Edmonton public school boards to see how effective this strategy when combined with the demands for French Immersion programs.

Another thing school boards need to do is to make the Core French programs more compelling for staff members and interesting for students. Core French classes tend to be considered low priority by school administrators. I had to teach a Core French class to students in grade-four for three months. Not once did the principal see me in action. Let's just say that my French was as good as Peggy Hill's Spanish on the animated show "King of the Hill."

At 12:20 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"French Immersion is NOT just another focus programme." is the way one outraged parent put it when a PARC voted to close a high school with a significant French Immersion component and a 7 & 8 EFI & LFI (grades 7 & 8)in downtown Kingston, Ontario. How true! We should be getting creative about attracting more students not fewer and more teachers not fewer. I have a teacher's certificate. I fail to see why mercy must be shown to English language teachers. We no longer need or can afford music teachers so they are laid off. My husband, now 66 was an insurance adjuster at the start of his career in the '60s. He had a crippling accident in the 70s and switched to life insurance. He ended his career in 2003 as a computer programmer. Nothing is carved in stone these days. Adjust. The future of our children and the future of our country should be trustees' priority, not the career path of teachers, administrators et al.


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