I wonder if billingual children overall do better academically no matter which language. Maybe it improves their brain skills or something. -- J.
L'immersion ou la mort!
Parents are fighting to secure French immersion spots for their kids. Is this a new form of patriotism or a need to find elite schooling within the public system?
From Monday's Globe and Mail, Monday, Jun. 15, 2009 01:42PM EDT
In the rural Okanagan town of Salmon Arm, B.C., an annual early spring rite plays out like clockwork.
At the end of March, parents arrive at the school district building toting coolers packed with food, fold-out chairs and a deep well of patience.
For the next two days, they'll trade jokes, watch movies, and sip Tim Hortons coffee delivered by amused neighbours, all in a bid to get their child into French immersion kindergarten.
“It's actually quite a jovial set-up,” said Alan Harrison, principal of the École Élémentaire Bastion, the only French-immersion school in the town of 15,000.
Forty years after the Official Languages Act was passed, demand for French immersion is soaring across the country.
Schools are battling to find teachers, school boards are struggling to accommodate classes, and parents are pulling out all the stops to ensure their child gets into the stream as early as possible.
But the vast interest has also ignited a fevered debate: Is it patriotism, global-minded parenting, or a desire to find elite schooling within the public system?
The elitism tag has been hurled in New Brunswick since the province – which is officially bilingual – got rid of optional early French immersion last year and replaced it with a mandatory program starting in Grade 3.
The public backlash was vehement, and centred on parental motives for wanting early French.
“It got very heated,” said Sackville resident and former teacher Paul Merrigan. “You had one side who seemed very much to believe immersion was an elitist program, and another side that felt like it was a right that is open to whoever.”
The outcome has turned his sons Caleb and Tolkien into early immersion test subjects: Caleb, 7, has been in French immersion since kindergarten; Tolkien, 4, will have to wait until Grade 3.
“For us, it's extremely frustrating,” he said. “We've seen the benefits our older son has got.”
Equally frustrating, school boards say, is accommodating the desire for French immersion.
Some British Columbia school boards hold lotteries for immersion spots due to a lack of spaces.
In Toronto – where elementary French-immersion enrolment has risen steadily for five years to reach 12,311 this school year – the district school board busses immersion students to schools with empty classrooms, and issues Letters of Permission to allow more than 1,000 people who are not technically qualified to teach in the core and immersion streams. Ottawa also relies on uncertified teachers to boost staffing.
“We strain to make this system work as best we can for the parents,” said TDSB chairman John Campbell.
But some parents simply do not like the school to which their child is assigned, he said. “Sometimes no matter what you do, you can't make everyone happy.”
One dissatisfied group of Toronto parents has vowed to form their own co-op French immersion kindergarten rather than bus their children to a school one kilometre farther away than their preferred neighbourhood site, the esteemed Brown Public School.
It's an extreme move. Co-op organizer Sindy Preger isn't sure it's elitist though.
“It depends on your definition of elite,” she says. “The TDSB has stated itself that the French immersion program is one of its most successful programs.
“The [students] perform better on arithmetic, writing and reading. Does that make those kids elite? I don't know. The kids learn more, they absorb more information, and they tend to perform better on tests.”
Ms. Preger and her husband grew up hearing their family members speak three or four languages. As a couple, they travelled the world together. It's that background, they say, that fuels their determination for language immersion.
In that respect, the Pregers are the classic example of French immersion's mounting strength.
Vancouver School Board chairwoman Patti Bacchus says a new generation of parent has arrived.
They were raised with official bilingualism and have travelled extensively, and they don't just want French immersion. Demand for all specialty programs is rising.
“Parents of today have grown up in more of a consumer culture. They want those options and choice,” she said.
While the New Brunswick debate raged, Doug Willms, Canada Research Chair in human development at the University of New Brunswick, published a report in Policy Options that found early streaming in French immersion created a segregated education system. Special-needs students were concentrated in English classes, while French students tended to be from higher social classes, were predominantly female, and had fewer behavioural problems and higher overall scholastic ability.
That segregation, he said, ultimately hurt the school system because it left lower-achieving students behind. “There is strong evidence from around that world that more inclusive school systems have higher overall academic performance, and fewer children with very low levels of achievement,” Dr. Willms told The Globe last week.
But according to the latest research in the Edmonton Public School Board, more options and choice could lead to advances that benefit students at all levels.
A two-year study finalized last week and now being prepared for publication shows children educated in French immersion have stronger English skills than they would normally have gained in an English-only stream, said director of curriculum resource development and research services, Stuart Wachowicz.
That includes students in the board's French immersion special-needs program.
“Students struggling academically remain in French immersion [and] those students produce English results that are at or above normal levels,” Mr. Wachowicz said.
One of North America's great mythologies, he said, is that language learning is the preserve of the intelligent, not the ordinary.
“Nothing could be farther from the truth,” Mr. Wachowicz said. “… All students, even students who are significantly academically delayed, can learn some words and learn to communicate in a language other than English. And they benefit from that.”
That language myth is being dismantled one determined parent at a time in Salmon Arm, where the school's first French immersion cohort is about to graduate to middle school.
“I don't think it is necessarily rampant patriotism, no,” said school principal Mr. Harrison.
“We do sing O Canada in both languages here [but] I think there would be a huge interest, no matter what the language was.”