When a defeated Pauline Marois, in her begrudging concession speech, said: “I am worried for our language,” she could not have been speaking of Colombie-Britannique where, in fact, school districts are unable to keep up with the demand for French-immersion opportunities.
Since 2003, reports indicate that French-immersion enrolment in B.C. public schools has increased by 47.5 per cent. During that time, public-school enrolment decreased by 9.1 per cent, which presents school districts with two interesting problem: where to find qualified truly bilingual teachers and how to physically accommodate more French-immersion classes while decommissioning school buildings.
The growing wait lists are being attributed to a shortage in qualified French-immersion teachers that even recruitment efforts to other provinces and overseas cannot fill.
That shortage is worsened by the difficulty of finding not only qualified bilingual teachers but teachers trained to teach at the appropriate levels.
I recall some years ago a superintendent colleague bringing the colère of angry parents down around his tête by refusing to initiate a K-3 French-immersion program because he could only find secondary-trained teachers willing to come to his district to teach primary grades.
There are numerous reasons why parents choose French immersion. While some of those reasons are open to question, many parents simply understand the significant benefits bilingualism offers in a world where more and more companies reach out into a world beyond Canada and are looking for employees able to work internationally.
In 2012 and 2013, B.C. had 234 and 245 postings for French immersion teachers, respectively.
Based on informal surveys with school districts and parents, the national advocacy group Canadian Parents for French estimates students are turned away from French immersion programs in about 23 B.C. communities every year.
Quebec premier-in-waiting Philippe Couillard is probably correct when he says: “There’s not a single parent in Quebec that doesn’t hope for their kids to be bilingual.” That might also be part of the reason for the upsurge in the demand for French immersion in B.C.
Historically, a lack of flexibility about what constituted properly established approved and funded immersion programs in B.C. might have contributed further difficulties.
The B.C. Ministry of Education French-immersion policy states that: “French immersion may be offered in two models: early French immersion, beginning in kindergarten, and late French immersion, beginning at the Grade 6 level.” It also states that: “In order to qualify for French immersion funding, boards of education must follow the ministry’s policies.”
Some years ago in a spread-out rural district, I was approached by a number of pro-immersion parents who wished to see the district establish a program.
Because the district’s elementary schools were spread over at least six communities, it was not going to be feasible to set up a single K-6 early immersion program.
But since there was an outstanding junior-secondary teacher who, having been raised in Quebec, spoke excellent French, it made sense to begin the program at Grade 8 when the kids all came to “town.”
Again, a problem, because French-immersion funding would not be available for this linguistic sacrilege, according to the ministry representative.
With school board approval, we set up the program anyway, and by Grade 10, the kids were comparison-tested against a K-10 immersion group from a neighbouring district and came up roses.
And now it is confession time. After 44 years of living in Canada, I have only recently begun to learn French. There had been no really practical, as opposed to political, reason to take on the French language.
Then two years ago, my wife and I visited Quebec City, and my eyes were opened. “You mean we have this jewel in Canada and we’ve never spent time here?” I said to her.
If I had it to do over again, I’d be bilingual, and I will be, before the final school bell rings.
Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.
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