Ben Wilkey presents the parents' case for French immersion at an open meeting on the issue at the community centre on Thursday.

For Revelstoke parents, French immersion debate still not over

Group of parents continue push for French immersion in Revelstoke, even after a school district report deemed the program "not feasible."

A group of dedicated parents continued their push for early French immersion in Revelstoke, even after a school district report deemed the program “not feasible.”

About 35 parents came out to a meeting at the Revelstoke Community Centre to discuss the issue of French language instruction. The meeting was organized by the newly formed local chapter of Canadian Parents for French (CPF), along with trustees Alan Chell, Mauro Morrone, Jeff Nicholso and Elmer Rorstad; superintendent Mike Hooker, and Kirsty Peterson, an outreach worker with CPF.

It provided the most open dialogue between parents and the school district on what has been a contentious issue marked by distrust.

“The reason we’re here is because we all believe in this,” said parent Ben Wilkey, who chaired the meeting.

The parents re-iterated their goal of early French immersion from kindergarten to grade seven, followed by core French in high school. Upon graduation students would take an exam that would give them an internationally-recognized Diploma in French Studies. They went over many of the issues: the difference in numbers between the school district and the parent group; the disagreement over attrition rates, and the program’s success in other districts.

Peterson, who drove from Vancouver for the meeting, represented CPF in B.C. She went over the organizations mandate, which is to improve French instruction across Canada, whether its immersion or something else. She talked about successful programs in other small communities and the reasons why some programs struggle.

“French immersion in a district is increasing even where the enrollment is decreasing,” she said, adding that some successful programs do have attrition.

The interesting part of the meeting was when the floor was opened to questions. Chell, the chair of the school board, who initially said he was only there to listen, asked the parents: “Is it your view that it’s early immersion or nothing, or are you interested in working with us in exploring other options to enhance French language instruction? That’s the key question for us.”

Giles Shearing responded that the parents were open to other forms of improved French instruction. However, the meeting revolved around the issue of French immersion, and the district’s unwillingness to implement the program.

Anita Hallewas, who is from Australia, said she was concerned that more and more parents would simply send their children to the Ecole des Glaciers, which would make French immersion even less likely in the future and prevent her children from speaking French. Another parent said that she enrolled her child in the Francophone school because of the lack of French immersion in the school district.

“I don’t know of any other issues that have brought so many people out for so many years,” said Sarah Newton, who helped spearhead the last push for French immersion more than five years ago. “If it’s so risky, why can’t you try a pilot project?”

“What’s the big deal?” asked another parent. “Why do you say it’s not sustainable? This seems like a pretty committed group. Why don’t you guys think that this is a good idea?”

Hooker responded that the school district had to look at both the merits of the new program and its impact on existing programs.

“Our challenge is to figure out, can we sustain very high levels of support and programs and the quality program – provincially known for outstanding English education – can we sustain it (with early French immersion)?” he said. “The answer at this point, my advice to the board is no we cannot.

“If that cohort were two-thirds of the group, it would be a different question.”

He said that with declining enrollment, French immersion could threaten the viability of running an English program at Arrow Heights Elementary.

Peterson recommended the board and the parents form a committee to discuss the issues, figure out what the problems are and ways to mitigate them.

“Maybe we just need to look at it from another angle – how to make it work,” she said.

Following the meeting, Chell said one of the positives of the meeting was the idea of forming an advisory committee on French education.

“What we’ve said consistently is we don’t believe it’s sustainable,” he said. “What parents are trying to convince us is that it is.”

Stephanie Melnyk, the president of CPF in Revelstoke, said she remained disappointed in the district’s resistance to the program, but that she agreed with the message that it was time to look at ways to make it work, rather than hear reasons why it won’t.

“Instead of saying it doesn’t work and here are the barriers, work towards what conditions we need to work towards to make it work,” she said, adding that she supported the idea of forming a committee.

 

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