Okanagan Skaha considers younger start for French Immersion

School district explores idea of opening program up to students in kindergarten or Grade 1

Steady growth of the local French immersion program has prompted school officials to once again explore the idea of opening it up to younger students.

Okanagan Skaha School District trustees on Monday voted to begin a feasibility study of an early French immersion program that would accept students in kindergarten or Grade 1. At present, only a late-entry model is available that takes kids in Grade 6.

“We just felt that it had been a few years since we looked at it, and perhaps it’s time to look at the possibility again,” said Ginny Manning, who chairs the school board.

About 10 per cent of the district’s total head count, 668 students, are in the French immersion stream at four schools in Summerland and Penticton, according to figures provided to the board. Manning said the program has expanded from a single Grade 6 class at KVR Middle School to four this year.

The president of the Okanagan Skaha chapter of Canadian Parents for French said it will be crucial for parents to get involved in the upcoming round of public consultation on the feasibility study.

“We can advocate until we’re blue in the face, but unless the parents are behind us and unless there is a demand, it’s not going to happen,” said Mona Smythe.

She said the popularity of French immersion has grown as more parents see how bilingualism can open up better job prospects for their kids.

“Like it our lump it, we are a bilingual country, and we need to embrace it from coast to coast. If the kids are going to have employment opportunities, they need to be bilingual,” Smythe said.

“If you want the kids to have the best of opportunities, they need to have the best of education,”

At the moment, she continued, the number of French immersion students is limited here by the number of classes offered, with new students selected through a lottery.

That means the program is “not available to everyone,” Smythe said, “and that has always been an issue for us.”

Glyn Lewis, executive director of the B.C.-Yukon chapter of Canadian Parents for French, said enrolment in such programs has grown provincewide for 14 consecutive years. So the appetite for expansion “is not something that’s unique to Penticton.”

According to Lewis, about two-thirds of B.C. school districts now offer French immersion classes, and both early and late programming is available in Kelowna, Vernon and Salmon Arm.

The feasibility study for an early-entry French immersion program in the Okanagan Skaha School District will kick off with public consultation this fall, and the board will also strike a new committee to explore the idea with parent advisory committees and unions.

A report is due back to the board next spring. If trustees agree to establish the new program, planning would take place during the 2013-14 school year, with the program expected to start in September 2014.

Secretary-treasurer Ron Shongrunden was unable to say what program start-up might cost, but said the feasibility study should include an estimate.


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