Parents blindsided by cuts to French immersion program

Some English students also have trouble finding spots in neighbourhood schools

Parents of French immersion students in Vancouver are crying foul over the loss of more than one quarter of the program’s kindergarten spaces for next year.

And they’re not alone — nearly 300 kindergarten students were turned away from their English neighbourhood schools.

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More than 840 kids signed up for the 377 spots. Five kindergarten classes were eliminated across the district.

Endre Koszec, whose daughter goes to kindergarten at Trafalgar elementary, which lost a kindergarten class, is worried his son won’t get a space in 2018. The family lives across town and the parents shuffle their work schedule to make pick up and drop off work, something they couldn’t do if their kids were at two different schools.

“We were blindsided by this,” Koszec said. “There was no consultation and it feels like senior staff made this decision… and they’re not answerable to anybody.”

The changes are at least partly a result of the smaller class sizes required by the teachers’ win in Canada’s Supreme Court, said the VSB’s director of instruction, Adrian Keough. Kindergarten classes in Vancouver can now only have 20 students, down from 22. Also, they can no longer be combined with Grade 1 classes.

It’s not only smaller class sizes that are putting a crimp in French immersion, it’s also a lack of qualified teachers, a shortage that is being felt across Canada, Keough said, adding that even with the cuts, the number of teachers is not reduced because of the smaller class sizes.

The local group of Canadian Parents for French say the reductions are related to the fact Vancouver students and parents don’t have elected representation.

“[The] caretaker Trustee [isn’t] accountable, in any real democratic sense, to the residents of Vancouver,” the CPF B.C. and Yukon branch said in a news release. “We believe this is a serious democratic deficit.”

They say, with an elected board, trustees would allow for plenty of consultation. Instead, Koszec said this decision feels like “an edict coming from the mountain.”

The NDP and the Greens announced a deal to cooperate as government just as this column was going to press and that deal will likely mean either an election or reinstatement of VSB trustees.

Koszec and other parents are worried that the cuts could jeopardize the future viability of the program.

“They happen to have stepped on the toes of parents who are passionate,” Koszek said. “[Where your children go to school] is a decision you take very seriously.”

But Keough, a former French immersion teacher, said the VSB is “very proud” of its 5,000-plus student French immersion program and hopes to keep the program as strong as possible.

As the Vancouver School Board grapples with its space problems — too much here, too little there — even kids looking for instruction in English sometimes had trouble finding spots.

In some cases, the numbers are stunning: Elsie Roy, the elementary school in Yaletown, had 106 students sign up for 40 kindergarten spaces and Simon Fraser elementary, on 16th between Cambie and Main, had 99 students sign up for 40 spaces.

Parents could be in for more surprises. Keough said all choice programs and all school boundaries are going to be reviewed in the coming school year.

“The last time they redrew the school boundaries, the public got really involved in those decisions,” said Rory Brown, president of the Vancouver Secondary Teachers’ Association. “Those are motherhood issues about where you send your kid to school. We need an elected board when there is going to be that level of public involvement.”  

The boundary review is likely to bring school closures back to the table. Although the teachers’ court win has mitigated these numbers, in 2016, there were more than 9,000 empty seats and 12 schools were slated for possible closure. Next year, the VSB expects enrolment to drop by 450 students. Census numbers show the number of kids in Vancouver is falling, even as the city’s population grows.

Sky high house prices are definitely one reason for that, but if parents can’t access the programs they want or even get their kids into their neighbourhood school, I predict that decline will only grow.

Tracy Sherlock writes about education and social issues. Contact her at tracy.sherlock@gmail.com.

@tracysherlock

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