French Immersion program deemed unsustainable in Burns Lake

On April 20, 2020, a report regarding the French Immersion programs’ review in SD91 was released by the Board of Education of the school district. This review was conducted by AZ Cooper Consulting and submitted to the board after in-person interviews with parents, teachers, students and the union.

The report details enrolments, budget, staffing and curriculum concerns as well as concerns over diversity within the French Immersion (FI) programs at William Konkin Elementary (WKE) in Burns Lake, WL McLeod Elementary School in Vanderhoof and Nechako Valley Secondary School (NVSS) in Vanderhoof. Of the three schools that were surveyed, only WL McLeod Elementary School received a positive review and while the report recommends not reintroducing the FI program at NVSS, it recommends elimination of the FI program at WKE. Following a request from French Immersion parents, the board gave a deadline extension for public submissions specific to the French Immersion report, to Thursday, May 7 after which the board will make a decision on the WKE FI program.

WKE’s FI program, which offers students a chance to learn in Canada’s second official language, has been suffering from declining enrolment in recent years. In fact, the program that was introduced in the year 2000 at the K/1 level, suffered at Kindergarten level and was deemed unsustainable in the 2016/17 school year. However, many parents believe that the lack of enrolment cannot be attributed to the success or failure of the program alone, but also to the school’s overall enrolment.

“The enrolment is declining in the French immersion program but also the entire school has had decline in enrolment by two per cent. So the fact that the FI program has seen a decline, is also reflected in the school’s enrolment,” said Nikki Shumka, a concerned parent and manager of the Little Angels Daycare.

When asked about this low school enrolment, Mike Skinner, the Assistant Superintendent for SD91 acknowledged that the decline in enrolment has been a problem for a while for the district. “Declining enrolment in the Burns Lake area, like many rural British Columbia communities, over the last fifteen years has put pressure on School District programming. School enrolment trends are complex and are tied to many factors such as the local economy and employment opportunities for families,” he said.

Several parents feel that the issue of declining enrolment however is due to the school district’s lack of enforcement of the catchment issue. In Burns Lake, catchment is not enforced so whoever lives here, can choose to send their children out to Decker Lake School, Francois Lake Elementary, or WKE. The schools in the village don’t end up capturing the entire school-going population from the village and instead encourage sending the local kids to schools outside.

“The decline in enrolment is a reflection of the fact that the school district has not dealt with the catchment issues and continues to bus kids out of catchment to put them in different schools. And, SD91 has supported and funded shipping kids out of catchment,” said Crystal Fisher, another parent of a Grade 5 student, who goes to the WKE’s FI program. Fisher herself has been a former student of the school and recollected having 300 students in the school, as opposed to the 183 students currently enrolled there. Fisher believes that the school district asking about the drop in enrolment is ironical, especially since they are the ones responsible for it according to her.

“It’s a typical example of SD 91 not wanting to deal with the real issue at hand which is the catchment issue; they should not be paying to ship children out of their catchment area to other schools,” she said firmly and pointed out that if the school district can justify busing people out and spending money on that service, cutting the FI program that brings in money, makes no sense. “I realize that everything needs to fit within a budget but the other piece that people are really missing here, is when children are enrolled in the program, the federal government matches the provincial government’s price per student or budget amount per student so for those 50 kids who are enrolled in WKE right now, the school actually receives, twice the budget amount,” said Fisher.

However, despite the consistent decline in enrolment, the overall province’s French Immersion program enrolment has seen a rise according to a report by the Canadian Parents for French in the school year 2018-2019 and found 53, 995 students enrolled in it, indicating a rising preference for the program in the province.

“I have a few questions; the part of the mandate for SD91 was to make sure that this program was successful and my question is what were the steps taken over the last few years to make sure that the program was successful? Did they promote it properly? I know that the parents of the French Immersion children promoted it but what about the school district?” said Rev. Alain Vitela-Campos of Grassy Plains Gospel Church.

Reverend Vitela-Campos, who is from Peru and his wife is from Mexico, is very clear about knowing multiple languages. His oldest child who is already graduated from LDSS, is a tri-lingual. “We have always seen language as the backbone of any communication; it transcends cultures. We are in Canada and one of the great things about Canada is that it is a bilingual country and every citizen has the right to be instructed in both languages. We educated our children in Spanish at home and they get French and English education at school so it is really important,” he explained.

Many parents also believe that in a bi-lingual country, teaching French through small villages and towns would be a great way to keep Canadians connected while several others feel that having this program makes Burns Lake an attractive option when someone is considering moving here. Elizabeth Berlin, the President of the Burns Lake CPF chapter and a nurse practitioner, moved to Burns Lake several years ago and continued staying on after she had her kids. One of the main reasons for this was the French Immersion program and the potential opportunities it would present for her kids in the future. “Having this program also means that a lot of other professionals who have moved here have chosen it for their children so I think, it is a big part of recruiting and maintaining professionals in the community,” she said, emphasizing on the indirect, positive impact of this program on the community, “Two years ago when three doctors moved to this community, we had no physicians that lived here but the number one reason for them to move here was education. So that’s huge and if we don’t have healthcare providers in the community, it’s a loss to the entire community, right?”

Lineo Mapetla, another parent of a child in the FI program even confirmed that the presence of a French immersion program at WKE played a key role in her family’s decision to move to Burns Lake when they immigrated from South Africa.

Despite the variety of backgrounds of its students, the report mentions lack of diversity and alienation of First Nations kids. “There is an African family, two Peruvian families and a couple of Vietnamese families in the program so we really don’t agree with that statement,” said Berlin. The report which also suggests that the program makes some non indigenous students feel excluded also confused parents as there are several non-indigenous students in the FI program according to them. “I guess I can’t speak from that perspective being that I am not non indigenous, but I never felt that the FI program was excluding in that manner, but obviously it is something that people feel,” remarked Shumka.

Berlin also shares the sentiment and although she doesn’t necessarily think there is a racial divide, she offers a different explanation,“I do think that for some of them it is probably not as relevant, and they feel that learning Carrier is more of a priority for their kids, but that’s my opinion,” added Berlin.

All the parents that spoke to the Lakes District News, represented the same sentiment when it came to the importance of the FI program and were appreciative of the opportunity for their kids to learn a second language and the opportunity for a little bit of higher level of learning. For some families, the loss of this program would be very disappointing but if that happens, they said that they will have to accept whatever decision came their way. However, some other parents, like Fisher would consider not sending their kids to WKE if the program is axed. “If WKE gets rid of the FI program, my child will not attend WKE and so they will lose that enrolment anyway. I will home-school him, before I put him in mainstream English,” she said.

Apart from the problem of losing enrolment, there is also the matter of what would happen to the teachers who are currently teaching in the FI program if it is axed. “In the event that the board accepts the recommendation to withdraw the French Immersion program at William Konkin Elementary, existing French Immersion teachers will be reassigned to new teaching assignments within the school. No teachers will be laid off because of any FI changes at WKE,” assured Skinner.

Skinner also said that the final report reflected the sentiment expressed by several parents about the value of the program and that the board would review all aspects of the FI program, taking into consideration the public comments, before making a final decision on May 11.

“I understand the merits in the concerns raised in the report but that being said, I don’t know that getting rid of the program, would be good for the community as whole. If there is anything possible to keep the program, that should be considered,” said Mapetla, echoing the sentiments of a lot of parents of the FI program students.

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