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Northwestern B.C. French Immersion program stays intact for now

Anxious parents listened to early comments from trustees supporting a motion that would have cut the Hazelton and Kitimat French programs at the high school level. That motion was turned down. - Jackie Lieuwen
Anxious parents listened to early comments from trustees supporting a motion that would have cut the Hazelton and Kitimat French programs at the high school level. That motion was turned down.
— image credit: Jackie Lieuwen

TENSIONS were high at the Coast Mountains School District board meeting in Terrace, B.C. last night when trustees faced another decision about whether to cut the high school French Immersion program in the district.

Close to 30 parents, teachers and students crowded the meeting, concerned about the threat to the program, which enrols ten per cent of students in the district.

On the table was a recommendation from district staff to either (1) cut the high school French Immersion program in Terrace, Kitimat and Hazelton or (2) cut the French program in the upper level grades in Kitimat and Hazelton and keep the Terrace program as it is.

At issue is the high school level French Immersion and its cost, estimated at $90,375, to run in the upper grades. That is in light of students leaving the program in high school. Numbers show that 422 students, or ten per cent of the school district population are enrolled in French Immersion, with 137 in high school.

French Immersion has been a subject of discussion for the past two years with two separate advisory committees established by the district to look at keeping the program.

The school board decided not to cut the high school program and to investigate options for utilizing technology, such as live streaming, so the program could be run in the upper grades in all communities.

Caption: Hazelton parents Jocelyn Chandler, right, and Shannon McPhail speak to trustees during question period, expressing thanks and a willingness to work with them to make the program sustainable. Chandler's husband is a doctor and she's also a medical professional, and they moved to Hazelton from Smithers in order to put their children in the high school French Immersion program.

 

The decision not to cut the Kitimat and Hazelton high school programs came as a relief to Hazelton parent Jocelyn Chandler, who spoke at the end of the meeting to trustees.

“First I want to I sincerely thank you,” she said. “You probably don’t realize how much this means to our community in Hazelton.”

She said the educational success rate of students in Hazelton is among the lowest in B.C., and French Immersion is one of the most successful programs, thus providing an exception to the low educational success rate.

Chandler added that parents in Hazelton have mobilized and put together a plan to recruit more students for French Immersion  so that the program will be cost effective for the school district.

Caption: Hazelton parent Shannon McPhail makes a determined, out-of-order speech at the start of the school board meeting, emphasizing the importance of French Immersion. Parents have spoken about the issue at prior meetings and submitted suggestions, but were concerned with recommendations. They did not have an opening to speak prior to the meeting and trustee decisions last night, March 29.

 

The board’s decision to maintain French Immersion in all three communities for now, took place after a significant shift in the early discussion among trustees.

Parents listened as four trustees initially voiced support for a motion that would have cut the high school program in Hazelton and Kitimat, maintaining it in Terrace.

Several trustees expressed feelings that the district’s money is being used unequally — benefiting some students at the expense of others.

Caption: Terrace trustee Art Erasmus said he was concerned that French Immersion doesn't take away from other programs for students.

 

Terrace trustee Art Erasmus said it most clearly.

“French Immersion should not be subsidized beyond what is available to others,” he said.

“We get a certain amount of money… we have four communities, one of which doesn’t offer the regular programs because there isn’t enough money,” he said, citing limited courses and programs in Stewart as an example.

“We’re not big enough to have enough students in every school to run the program without taking the money from the rest of the students. We can’t afford that.”

Other trustees, including Margaret Warcup from Kitimat and Angela Brand Danuser from Stewart, said they felt the motion was “the lesser of two evils.”

But things shifted after opposition was voiced by Hazelton trustee and board chair Shar McRory.

Caption: Hazelton trustee and school board chair Shar McRory, middle, had the task of keeping what was a tense school district meeting in order. To her left is school district superintendent Katherine McIntosh, and on her right is secretary/treasurer Alanna Cameron.

 

She said she felt that cutting the program was not in the best interests of students, and it would strengthen inequality between different communities.

It was also not supported by school district stakeholders.

“I feel that if we support this (motion), then we are not listening to our partners,” said McRory, noting that it wasn’t just French stakeholders who sent in support for French program.

Letters were written to the school district from the Coast Mountains Teachers Federation, Terrace and District Teachers Union, and the District Parent Advisory Committee, she noted.

But most importantly, McRory said she felt that offering French Immersion as an academic option is what is best for students, and money shouldn’t dictate that decision.

“The value of the program, the monetary value put by the district, is not enough to cancel the program — We are talking about the future of our leaders!” she exclaimed.

Kitimat trustee Raymond Raj added that since we live in a bilingual country, offering French is more important than offering courses in other languages.

“You’re talking about the official language of the country… all the students should be allowed to learn French,” he said, adding that he does have concern that it not be at the expense of other students.

After some discussion, trustees voted on a motion to cut the high school French program in Kitimat and Hazelton.

The vote was exactly split, with trustee Roger Leclerc absent, so the motion was turned down. It was voted against by trustees McRory, Danuser, and Sandy Watson from Thornhill. Trustees Erasmus, Warcup and Raj voted in favour of the cut.

Caption: Stewart trustee Angela Danuser shares limitations of programs in Stewart and proposes the board look at utilizing  technology to provide a sustainable French Immersion program. To her right is Terrace trustee Art Erasmus.

 

After that motion was rejected, trustee Danuser put forward a new motion, suggesting the school district look into options to use technology, such as live streaming, as a way to offer the high school French Immersion program in all communities.

Trustees McRory, Danuser, Watson, Raj and Warcup all voted in favour, and Erasmus abstained from the vote.

Amidst the discussion, a third and final motion was passed by trustees, that the district to support parents in lobbying both the federal and provincial governments to seek more funding for French Immersion.

Trustee Raj emphasized that it is parents and citizens who have power to influence government more than government institutions.

“When you go to the government and talk to them, they listen. When the staff or trustees, we go, we are whining,” he said. “All the communities where parents are more active, the [Parent Advisory Committees]… they get what they want from government.”

In a news release March 30, school board chair Shar McRory affirmed that the school district will continue offering the program in all three communities, and options for videoconferencing will be considered at the next school board meeting on April 26, 2017.

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