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Ontario schools struggle to keep students in French immersion

Parents have waited in lines or placed their hopes on a lottery system to get their child a coveted spot in French immersion. But new data show that exuberance fades as children get older.

Data collected by The Globe and Mail from several big Ontario school boards indicate that about half of the students drop out of the program as they move through their elementary-school years.

School boards, as a result, are faced with new pressures: They initially struggle to find qualified French teachers to meet booming demand, and then shift their focus to find resources to help students stick with the program when they aren't thriving. Some families are quietly encouraged to move their children into the English stream.

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"For some families, they find it hard to see their kids struggle," said Kirsten Johnston, the program co-ordinator for French as a second language at the Toronto District School Board. Other children no longer want to study the language and some have new options available, such as gifted programming or alternative arts or science programs, school board officials say.

At the TDSB, Canada's largest school board, there are about 1,100 students in French immersion in Grade 8, less than half of those in kindergarten classrooms.

Nearby, the Peel District School Board has seen French-immersion enrolment drop even earlier: By the time students reach Grade 5, fewer than half remain in the program.

At the Halton District School Board, where controversial changes to the program are being considered, only about 50 per cent of students who enroll in French immersion in Grade 1 stay with it right up until Grade 8.

Getting their children into French immersion is a must for many parents, who feel it's a way to give their young ones a competitive edge. In some districts in British Columbia, parents line up outside school doors to ensure their child can get a spot in the program. Some Ontario boards have put a lottery system in place to contain exploding growth, and the unlucky are forced to spend their school year in English-only classrooms.

The Halton school board, west of Toronto, will put forward a recommendation to trustees on Wednesday to delay entry until Grade 2, from Grade 1, and have students spend the entire day speaking French, as opposed to just half the day.

David Boag, Halton's associate director of education, said the change would force parents to decide if it's the right fit for their children, and in doing so become more committed to sticking to the program. Trustees will vote on the recommendation in mid-June.

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"With a higher-intensity model, people are going to have a little more of a thoughtful conversation prior to making that decision" to enroll in French immersion, Mr. Boag said.

Mary Cruden, president of the non-profit Canadian Parents for French (Ontario), said that over the past two years, school boards have started to realize that students in French immersion need supports similar to those in the English program. She said she has counselled parents to advocate for those supports, especially where schools are pressuring families to move their children into the English stream.

"It is way easier to say to parents to just put your kid down the hall in the English program. But in the end, what it does is it takes away the opportunity for a child to participate in a French immersion program," she said.

The TDSB's Ms. Johnston said educators have learned that even if a struggling student were to move from French immersion into English, it doesn't change much in terms of their achievement. The board, like others, has been increasing supports to its French immersion teachers to help students with different learning styles remain in the program should they choose.

"We will lay out to families what we are able to do, and then they can choose. If they want those supports within French immersion, great," she said. "We offer them, we accommodate, we modify."

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About the Author
Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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