Parents question French immersion changes 

By Darren Lum

Kevin Kerkhof paused while playing Battleship with his children last week at Jeuxdi an event where people use French in play to share his thoughts about his third child entering French immersion in Haliburton.

“I just think the earlier the better” he said in response to recent changes to the program introduced within Trillium Lakelands District School Board.

Students entering kindergarten this September will have to wait a year before being eligible to join the French immersion stream. Last year this wasn’t the case.

A TLDSB report states their focus is on “providing high quality French language instruction while addressing the local shortage of qualified French language instructors.”

According to the report the decision follows consultation last year and this year about French immersion programs and staffing requirements. The survey had 734 respondents (613 parents/guardians 79 staff 39 students and three community members).

The first recommendation was changing French immersion to start in Grade 1. The second recommendation which has not yet been approved is to have math taught in English to French immersion students. Right now French immersion students learn math in French from kindergarten until Grade 4 when students are taught math in English.

Kerkhof said the math recommendation will delay his eldest son’s development in using French for math when he’s in Grade 2 next year.

“At the end of the day they should allow more teachers to be hired and they would have more teachers to fill the spots” he said. “I’m strongly opposed to a lot of the cuts the province is doing. I think we’re already lowering the bar on education and this is just lowering the bar [further].”

Kerkhof said having his children in the immersive stream makes sense living in a bilingual country and it gives them greater opportunities.

Canadian Parents for French Haliburton chapter treasurer Melissa Valentini who also has two children in French immersion in Haliburton said the more exposure for her children to French the better.

“There is value in having exposure to French as soon as possible when they’re learning and developing all their skill sets. I would prefer it” she said.

As far as the math recommendation she isn’t in favour of it but understands the justification.

“In a perfect world it wouldn’t happen. There wouldn’t be any changes and they would have as much exposure to as much French as possible. However you have to work with the budget and within the confines of what is allotted. But I think it’s unfortunate. I think it’s unfortunate … the idea of French immersion is for them not to learn it as a class but for them to be immersed in it” she said. She adds an event like Jeuxdi is an example of how students can learn by using French in an out of class scenario.

“Any time we take away exposure to French we’re minimizing their ability to use French outside the classroom in different situations” she said.

With her oldest child in Grade 4 and her youngest in Grade 1 studying French immersion she can’t help but think less French language exposure will hamper their development of language skills since she and her husband don’t speak French.

The TLDSB website states for Grade 1 to 3 in French immersion instruction in French is provided 80 to 100 per cent of the time while Grade 4 to 6 students have a minimum of 60 per cent French instruction.

While math is taught in English from Grade 4 to 8 the other subject taught primarily in English is science.

Taking French from math is a loss Valentini said. She saw the benefit for her daughter and said if there is a change that it will affect her son. “From SK [senior kindergarten] to Grade 3 she learned math in French. She’s now just started Grade 4 so she learned math in English for the first time but that allows her to think of it in both languages. If she talks about math she can interchange between the two. Whereas Patrick [my younger child] if they take it away won’t be able to” she said. “French will be in certain things and not in other things which is unfortunate.”

Valentini was among the respondents listed for the survey. She said there wasn’t an indication that the survey she took would have such far reaching ramifications to the French immersion program. She and other parents she spoke to believed the survey questions were framed to indicate changes must be made to ensure the French immersion program continued.

“Pick the best of the two as opposed to do you want to do this or do you not want to do this? But if you do this you can keep French if you don’t do it you might lose the whole French program.’ I think there could have been anything there that I would have said ‘Let’s do whatever we can to keep the French program.’ There are so many good things” she said

Dianne Brown a parent with one son in Grade 1 French immersion was among the respondents who looked at each survey question and ultimately disagreed with the recommendations. “Basically everything was pushing it later. And that made me feel like there was not enough teachers [and resources]” she said.

Although she has seen her son excel with French in math and elsewhere she understands there may be some children who could see a benefit with math being taught in English.“I’m not saying that every child is going to learn to the same level. Some children it may be better to start them later because maybe they didn’t pick up English as well” she said. Her son she said has had a strong grasp of languages since he was a baby.

Without knowing about the consultation process outlined in the TLDSB report the two parent respondents question why there are not more opportunities for input to deliberate over the recommendations set forth whether it’s a public meeting or a survey with a larger sample. They wonder about the timing and the validity of the survey which is part of the justification for the changes.

There are currently 2145 French immersion students enrolled in TLDSB. “It’s not enough information” Valentini said. “I don’t think there was enough education for the parents who may not have understood the implication of the outcome.”