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Canada Teacher shortage translates into threat for French immersion even as demand booms

Joanna Bailey and her son colour books in the living room of their Oakville home on Sunday. Ms. Bailey and her husband hoped to enroll their son in French immersion, but now they may not get the opportunity.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

A school board in Southern Ontario will consider dropping its French-immersion program as it grapples with a shortage of qualified teachers, tabling a drastic – and controversial – response to an issue that educators face in many parts of the country.

French immersion is popular with many parents who want their children to learn a second language or to give them a competitive edge. Enrolment has climbed about 20 per cent between 2011-12 and 2015-16, according to Statistics Canada. But that interest has caused a few headaches for public school districts, who say they struggle with reconfiguring classrooms and finding qualified French teachers.

Trustees at the Halton Catholic District School Board will consider a committee recommendation later this month to phase out French immersion, an optional program that starts in Grade 1. Anna Prkacin, Halton's superintendent of curriculum services, said it is challenging for the Catholic board to offer the program, as well as an extended French program that starts in Grade 5 and core French, in which students learn the language as a subject.

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Related: Quality of French-immersion teachers questioned as demand soars in Canada

"It is the staffing crisis," Ms. Prkacin said. "We are struggling to staff all of these programs, and quite frankly, it is beginning to have a negative impact on our ability to provide quality French instruction to our students."

The staffing shortage comes as interest in French immersion balloons across the country. In New Brunswick, the government moved the early entry into French immersion this fall to Grade 1 from Grade 3, fulfilling an election promise. Several school boards across the country have used a lottery system or capped enrolment to contain exploding growth. In some parts of British Columbia, parents line up outside school doors to ensure their children get a spot in the program.

The Vancouver School Board has wait lists for its French-immersion program. Despite that, the district had 136 fewer French-immersion spaces for kindergarten students this school year.

Adrian Keough, director of instruction at the Vancouver School Board, said the decision to cut spaces was mainly because of a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling that required small classes in B.C. schools, ending a long-standing dispute between teachers and the provincial government. A teacher shortage was also to blame.

"Numerous school boards in B.C. are struggling with the shortage of qualified French-immersion teachers including Vancouver. VSB continues to pursue opportunities to recruit suitably qualified French immersion teachers," Mr. Keough said in an e-mail.

But cutting spots doesn't sit well with parents, especially those in Halton Catholic who face the prospect that French immersion will be phased out. The research is clear that the earlier children learn a second language, the better.

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Márcio Campos, a parent with two children in Halton Catholic schools, one of whom is in French immersion, said some parents would leave the board if trustees vote to remove the program. "I understand there is a challenge … But are we sure we're putting our best effort into attracting qualified teachers?" he asked.

Several school districts have said that a teaching position in English attracts hundreds of applications. Meanwhile, they are lucky to receive a handful of qualified applicants for a French-language position.

In Halton Catholic, Ms. Prkacin said she is a proponent of French-language instruction and understands the value of the French-immersion program. The board introduced its early immersion program in 2013 and it is currently at four sites. Online registration for a space is on a first-come, first-served basis, and there is a wait list.

Phasing out the program, if approved, would begin next fall. Those students currently in the program would continue French immersion until completion in Grade 8.

"We are concerned about our students and maintaining our high standards with the program delivered by qualified staff on a consistent basis," Ms. Prkacin said.

Its conterminous public board, the Halton District School Board, recently voted to delay entry to Grade 2 so parents could take an extra year to decide if it was the right fit for their child. The board, which is also facing a teacher shortage, said it hoped the move would help manage the growth over time.

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Mitzie Hunter, Ontario's Education Minister, said that she was working on addressing the challenges with teacher supply. In a speech late last month at a Canadian Parents for French symposium, Ms. Hunter said the government was developing a strategy that included developing information campaigns to recruit internationally and piloting a program that provides financial support to teachers who access qualifications in priority areas, including French.

Betty Gormley, executive director of Canadian Parents for French (Ontario), said that with the government's message in mind, boards should think twice before contracting their programs.

"School boards really need to make decisions that are going to benefit all of their constituents. And if parents understand the benefits … and want to be in these programs, school boards have an obligation to meet that demand," she said.

Halton Catholic parent Joanna Bailey said she hoped to enroll her son in French immersion when he started Grade 1 next fall. She and her husband previously worked for the federal government in Ottawa, and understand how important it is for their children to be bilingual, she said.

"It will be a disappointment for us as a family [if Halton Catholic phases out the program]," she said. "We all know that earlier exposure to language is beneficial. I think the longer he waits to be immersed, the less ideal the outcome will be for our goals as a family to have functionally bilingual children."

Indigenous students at Patricia-Keewatin District School Board were graduating at about half the rate of non-Indigenous students. So at Dryden High School they implemented a unique program with a graduation coach who works alongside the students - not as a teacher - to guide them through high school. So far the program seems to be working.
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