As French immersion numbers grow in Nanaimo, expansion faces challenges

By Dominic Abassi
September 13, 2016 - 1:09pm

NANAIMO — Conversations are going on about expanding French immersion programs in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District, but according to a principal, it's not as easy as simply opening up new classrooms.
 
Numbers provided by SD68 show 11-percent of the student population, 1,513 students, were enrolled in French immersion programs in the district in the 2015/16 school year.

Those 1,513 children mark a steady increase from the 1,275 enrolled in the program in the 2011/12 school year.
 
Mike Lundine, principal at Ecole Quarterway, the largest French immersion elementary school in the district, says the data he's seen shows the demand will continue to grow over the next five-to-10 years.
 
"I know that the board is having conversations about it. I know that the assistant superintendent who's responsible for French immersion, plus the superintendent and CEO of schools are looking at this need, it's very important to them that they be able to make families happy, just like it would be for any of the academies that we run in town," says Lundine.
 
He says there are 50 kindergarten students on the waiting list for French immersion in the district this school year.

It's a popular program, Lundine says, for a variety of reasons.

"Having two languages is an advantage, for sure. When parents want their child to have a second language to simply open more doors down the road, then they can look at French immersion as a possibility."

There are currently four French immersion elementary schools in SD68 -- Quarterway, Hammond Bay, Pauline Haarer and North Oyster, which is a dual-track school, meaning they offer both French and English programs. Lundine says he's not aware of any private schools offering the program in the city.

A new French immersion program has been recently opened at Ladysmith Secondary School, which creates more options for students in the south-end, since in the past all of the children were funneled to NDSS.

While there are discussions on-going, and seemingly a will to have the offerings expanded in the district, Lundine points to a pair of major challenges.

"We just don't have the physical space. The board has been doing a lot of important work around making our schools an optimal size, so opening up classes and putting French immersion kids in them isn't a reality."

He says that means strategically finding room to place the kids, noting another 'dual-track' school like North Oyster may be the best option.

The next issue, he says, is finding qualified teachers.

"We do require that all of our teachers have a native-like fluency and that isn't always easy to find. We simply can't head out to Quebec and bring back teachers with us anymore."

Lundine says to address the latter issue, he has started working with a small group of principals from across the island and some reps from VIU to open conversations for creating a curriculum for university students in the education program who want to be French immersion teachers.

"So they would go to VIU to do their education for the program they're in, but they would do that to become a French immersion teacher and not just take French courses on the side."

Finding a solution to that would allow them to move students straight out of high school, into VIU and they would take French courses all the way through, according to Lundine.

The ideal situation for the district, he says, is to have every kid who wants a spot in a special program to have a chance to be in that program.

An email from the group Canadian Parents for French states that in 2015/16, 9.5-percent of the entire student population in B.C. was enrolled in French immersion. The email points to 18 consecutive years of growth in the immersion program across the province.

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Data provided by SD68 shows overall enrollment numbers have dropped, while French immersion has seen steady growth. (2016/17 data was not available)

All students:

2011/12 - 14,183

2012/13 - 13,971

2013/14 - 13,875

2014/15 - 13,708

2015/16 - 13,660

French immersion:

2011/12 - 1,275, 9.0% 

2012/13 - 1,325, 9.5%

2013/14 - 1,386, 10.0%

2014/15 - 1,435, 10.5%

2015/16 - 1,513, 11.1%

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