Former trustee puzzled by early French immersion failure

School district hosting sessions in Penticton and Summerland this week as it again considers the program, which almost launched in 2005

Something turned off parents the last time the school board considered an early French immersion program and it could well have been the proposed site, according to a former trustee.

In February 2005, the Okanagan Skaha School District was prepared to place two French immersion kindergarten classes at Queen’s Park Elementary in Penticton, but elected to cancel the program when just 27 students were signed up.

Now the district is taking another look at offering the classes, which would compliment an existing late French immersion program that starts in Grade 6. A feasibility study is underway and the first parent information session is set for Wednesday night at Uplands Elementary.

Connie Denesiuk, who was at the helm of the school board in 2005, said trustees were stunned when the program they spent months planning had to be scuttled after demand suddenly evaporated.

“It was very disappointing for me at the time,” said Denesiuk, who did not stand for re-election in 2011.

“We didn’t do a post-mortem,” she continued, but “some thought the location should have been more central.”

According to a feasibility study prepared in November 2004, Queen’s Park was the only school in the district that had space for the two new classes.

The study mentioned, however, that the French program “would (have changed) the sociology of Queen’s Park significantly.”

It noted the school had “placed particular emphasis on compensatory programs to try to ensure as many students as possible achieved at grade expectations.” And further, “effort would have to be made to ensure the integration of the school year and to ensure that the distinct needs of both the English track and EFI students and parents are met.”

Since 2005, district-wide enrolment has dropped by about 900 students to 6,200 this year, and no schools have closed during that span, so it’s unlikely a lack of classroom space would be an issue this time around.

The feasibility study also determined it would have taken about $20,000 to get the two new classrooms up and running, but federal grants would have only covered half that amount. And with less than full classrooms, the new French program would have siphoned money from regular instruction budgets, which Denesiuk said made her uneasy.

“We couldn’t take from regular programming in order to fund the French immersion,” she said. “We didn’t feel that that was right… to begin to offer the program at the expense of other students in the district. It had to be self-sustaining.”

At the school board’s meeting two weeks ago, assistant superintendent Dave Burgoyne said he expected regular school funding plus federal grants for French language education would probably cover the start-up costs this time around.

Denesiuk suggested the school board should work harder this time to make sure early French immersion appeals to as many parents as possible to ensure it gets enough kids to make the program go. One thing working against it, she said, is a perception of elitism attached to French immersion.

“I think in my view the board’s doing a good thing,” Denesiuk said, “but it has to continue to make sure that that stigma is removed and all students have equal access to early immersion.”

Trustees at their last meeting also heard from the B.C.-Yukon chapter of Canadian Parents for French. Executive director Glyn Lewis told the board French immersion enrolment has grown in B.C. in each of the past 14 years

“We really do believe it’s an enrichment of the students. In a bilingual country it’s going to create opportunities east and west for them,” Lewis said.

The CPF is working with the school board as it prepares its newest feasibility study on French immersion. A final report is due back to the board in the spring for a decision. The new program, if approved, would begin in September 2014.

Wednesday’s meeting at Uplands Elementary begins at 7 p.m. Another meeting goes Thursday at 7 p.m. at Giant’s Head Elementary in Summerland.