Open letter to Manu Madhok, Superintendent School District 91
On behalf of the Burns Lake Canadian Parents for French (CPF) chapter, I would like to provide our feedback regarding the recently released SD 91 French Immersion (FI) Review. We are extremely concerned with its recommendation to eliminate our FI Program. It highlights that parents of children in FI are deeply satisfied with it, and we agree. Families rarely pull their children out of FI, unless they are leaving the community, so these families make a commitment of seven to eight years minimum to the village.
While bringing in a consultant from outside of our community provided relative neutrality, it missed some contextual issues. FI is a draw for families that are considering moving here, and is a key point in recruiting and retaining professionals; which is desirable for all of us. FI is the only option for an enriched educational in this area. The foundation of the report is that low enrollment makes maintaining the program a challenge; and declining numbers in Burns Lake as part of the reason for ending the program. Removing a program that is a draw and a strength to the Village would increase the challenges we face to keep our community vibrant and appealing for years to come.
As a nurse practitioner having worked in the community for the past 16 years, I am aware of Burns Lake’s struggle to recruit and retain of health care professionals. It has been normal for physicians to come to Burns Lake to work but live elsewhere. Many have cited poor quality of education for this. Presently the only physician family in Burns Lake with children in school locally is the Nogela family who chose the FI program.
The “elephants in the room” are catchment and the high rates of FASD. Our community is infamous for having the highest rates of FASD nationally. The report touches on behavioural issues in the English stream, but does not name FASD as a factor. WKE is infamous for its poor scores through the Fraser Institute Report; actually, the worst in the province. As acknowledged by our principal, this is linked to the number of special needs students at WKE. Local parents are aware, and many chose to place their children either at Decker Lake, Francois Lake or WKE’s FI Program in hopes of a better quality of education. Teachers in WKE’s English stream must accommodate the special needs and behavioral challenges; possibly leading to a lower quality of education for other students. Enforcing catchment would significantly increase enrollment in both English and French streams at WKE. As the report flags a single program for elimination without examining this larger school district issue; we feel the process is flawed, and short-sighted. While these issues are complex; scrutinizing them in relation to FI is imperative as they are inextricably linked.
If the FI program is terminated, families would have to consider their options- moving schools, or from Burns Lake. These are weighing heavily on our minds; and would negatively impact WKE. Additionally, most Parents Advisory Committee positions (four of six this year, and most years all positions) are held by FI parents who also do the bulk of the volunteering at WKE
Switching from FI to English would be challenging- in FI all teaching is in French from Kindergarten through Grade 3. In Grade 4, English literacy is introduced and students are expected to be delayed at this point. English programming is phased in through to Grade 7 in preparation for high school. Thus, students will have the challenge of limited English Literacy if forced into the English stream.
Enrollment and Program Organization
The report’s premise is that declining enrollment will lead to the demise of the program. It points out that having a kindergarten program is critical to sustaining the program- we agree. Page five of the report looks at an option for two classes of French Immersion students. While we recognize that four-level splits are not ideal, it may be what is necessary to maintain the program during this period of lower enrollment and could include Kindergarten.
Page 10 shows that enrollment has actually been fairly consistent. This year’s 51 students is within average. Next year’s potential 44 students is well above some lower years. Mr. Madhok told CPF that if the program gained 40 students, it could be sustainable. He provided rough statistics showing that at Francois Lake there are 30 students and another 45-50 at Decker Lake who live in town. If catchment were enforced and these 80 students attended WKE, likely approximately half would choose FI making up the necessary numbers. While the School District examines FI budgets and enrollments; it is prudent that they not ignore catchment and other elementary school’s sustainability; rather than just looking at severing the FI program. To do otherwise would be very short-sighted.
We challenge a number of the points here. On page 11, it states that “The fact that the school is dual track is not visible…” The sign directly under the WKE sign in the parking area reads “Canadian Parents for French”. In the Foyer are three display cases, Carrier, English and French. “Cultural activities are very limited, and former students indicated they would have preferred to learn more about French culture” (p.11). We provide several opportunities to share French culture with the whole school. Firstly, a winter “Carnival” is held where CPF hosts a breakfast for students, the Strong Start program, RCMP, and School District Trustees. Parents cook and serve the breakfast, French music plays and our Bonhomme Carnival entertains. Secondly, we bring in “French Entertainers” annually (dance troops, rhythm bands, a string artist, and musicians). This is over several days allowing all ages to have sessions and all students participate and a school-wide assembly with the entertainer. Thirdly, WKE is famous for their amazing Christmas Concerts. The plays always incorporate a choir from classes in each stream and FI classes sing their songs in French. It is important to note that all of these FI activities include students in the English stream and they look forward to these events just as much as the FI students.
We question the point with regards to the behavior of FI students and the “lack of positive social and academic role models in English classes” (p. 12). That FI students have better behaviour logs than their English peers speaks to the significantly higher rates of special needs students in the English stream, and also likely to the quality of education in FI. This speaks to the student’s commitment of and the value that they place in the program. It should not be on the shoulders of the students to affect the behaviours of others. Rather, their ‘job’ in school is to get an education and be the best they can be. While this could relate back to being a positive role model for others, it should not take away from their experience and learning opportunities.
In the summary (p. 13) a lack of diversity is mentioned. We disagree. If anything, FI draws diverse families into the community: in addition to having several FN students in each class, there families from Peru, Vietnam and African. FI supports a different language and culture bringing diversity. The report noted lower rates of FN students in the French program than in the English program but misses that the Morris Williams School is an enriched educational option available only to FN students. Some FN families may feel that Carrier may be more relevant than French, as we have heard anecdotally at PAC meetings. The introduction of this school also impacted WKE enrollment.
We appreciate the opportunity to provide feedback on this report. It omits some key factors that could reverse the report’s findings. Forcing students into an English stream will cause challenges due to delays in English literacy. Losing the FI would have sweeping implications to the community at large. I think of the saying “Build it and they will come” which we frequently hear in a small town. The flip side to that is “Slash it and …” We strongly oppose closing the program in September of 2020. Not only do we find fault with the report, but the FI program enriches the education of our children and also our entire community. While population trends have decreased significantly in our Village since the program started, the enrollment in FI has been relatively consistent. Re-introducing Kindergarten as a method of recruiting FI students early and reducing FI classes to two during this period of lower numbers would be a manageable alternative to cutting the program. Prior to cutting FI; the SD should review its policies on catchment and enrollment at the other elementary schools.
Beth Berlin for Canadian Parents for French with input from French Immersion parents: Shannon Adams, Cheryl Anderson, Jason Berlin, Karen Broadworth, Jay Finstaad, Crystal Fischer, Raya Leith, Lineo Nogela, Nikki Shumka and Tanya Van Tine