French immersion program could hurt small schools outside Penticton

Prospects for a new early French immersion program dimmed this week with the release of a study that suggested it would severely impact enrolment at some small schools.

A working group composed of parents, teachers and administrators has since last fall been studying the feasibility of beginning EFI within the Okanagan Skaha School District.

The group projected enrolment and startup requirements for the program, which would handle students in kindergarten to Grade 5, then dovetail with late French immersion classes in Grade 6

On Tuesday, the group’s report was sent to a school board committee meeting for its public unveiling.

Using parent surveys, the working group projected the elementary school in Kaleden would lose 12 students to EFI over six years, while schools in Naramata and the West Bench would each lose 24. For Naramata, that would equal a one-third decrease in students based on current enrolment.

Ginny Manning, who chairs the school board, told the committee meeting she had “huge concerns” after reading the report.

“I wonder… is the educational value (of EFI) worth losing, potentially, three schools and all the implications of that on the communities and the people who live there?” Manning said.

The working group projected total district-wide enrolment in EFI beginning in September 2014 at up to 55 kids, which would be enough to start out with two classes each in kindergarten and Grade 1 in Penticton, but it left the door open for a smaller program or expansion to Summerland.

Four options were laid out for housing EFI, including gradually turning McNicoll Park Middle School into a single-track French facility, or splitting classes between Wiltse and Carmi elementary schools.

Regardless of location, “it appears that there will be facility costs (to start) as we do not have a school with sufficient space at this point to house an EFI program,” said assistant superintendent Dave Burgoyne, who led the working group.

Burgoyne added that even with two classes at startup, EFI would require at least one new classroom at the outset, “and a lot of space down the road, for sure.”

School district staff estimate it would cost about $100,000 to buy and equip a new, one-classroom modular building.

Derek Hurst, a member of the district parent advisory council who attended the committee meeting, noted both his daughters attend French immersion classes so he understands their value. However, he said EFI is a “gravy program” during tough economic times.

“We know this a great program to be offered, it just doesn’t look like it’s a great time to start it,” said Hurst.

Jacquie Kentel from the South Okanagan chapter of Canadian Parents for French said it’s important EFI not be implemented by half-measures.

“One of my concerns is just the financial commitment in terms of making sure if we do go ahead that we have the (long-term) support for (EFI) and we recruit the right teachers and have the other supports,” Kentel said.

The working group’s report will presented Monday to the full school board at its regular meeting, at which trustees are expected to decide if they want staff to proceed to planning for EFI.

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