‘Parents should have the right to choose’ 

Concerned Ottawa parents react to proposed French Immersion changes 

Recent proposed changes to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s Early French Immersion program are stirring heated debate — and emotions — among many Ottawa parents.

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Melanie is an Ottawa mom whose daughter will begin school in September 2018, after the changes are expected to take place. She attended French Immersion in Ottawa and understands its benefits.

“It’s so important in a city like Ottawa,” she said.

“You need a strong French vocabulary to get a job.”

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board recently proposed several key changes to its Early French Immersion program, placing parents like Melanie squarely at the centre of the debate.

The board has made efforts to hear feedback, and concerns are being raised by a vocal group of Ottawa parents who are concerned about the impact on the quality of the EFI program. Meanwhile, the board is considering implementing the changes as early as September 2016.

Three changes are being proposed for the Early French

Immersion program:

• Junior kindergarten for all students offered in 50-per-cent French, 50-per-cent English, rather than English-only;

• Math instruction for EFI students in English instead of French;

• 60 minutes of daily English language instruction for Grades 1-3.

According to the board report that followed an initial consultation with parents, staff, and the public, 66-to 68-per-cent of parents surveyed were generally in favour of the program changes.

The report states “there was strong parent support” for each of the first two changes, with “concern about the impact” of the last change.

By providing English language instruction and changing the language of instruction for math, Grade 1 EFI students would be immersed in French for only 60-per-cent of the day, versus the 100-per-cent immersion currently offered. Also, Grade 2 and 3 students would reduce their immersion from 80-per-cent to 60-per-cent, which has some parents deeply concerned.

Ottawa moms Kristin and Colleen each have two children in the current EFI program: one in kindergarten, and one in Grade 3. Although their older children will not be affected by the changes, they are familiar with the current program’s benefits and drawbacks.

Kristin’s son will move into Grade 1 next year, when the changes could take effect. She said, “[He] would benefit from math in his first language. It will leave less room for misunderstandings based on language. Math is a vital subject.”

However, she is grateful that JK was offered in English only. Her son is one of the younger students in class and she said “the transition to JK from home was not an easy one … this would have made it more difficult.”

She appreciated being able to choose EFI after seeing how her son adjusted to JK: “Parents, with the help of a teacher, should have the right to choose.”

Colleen, however, disagreed. “I tried to put my oldest in French immersion for JK, but it wasn’t offered at the time. The preschool daycare she had been attending was bilingual, and I can’t see the problem with starting earlier.

“The primary purpose of JK seemed to be about getting kids used to going to school,” she said, something she believes young students can accomplish just as easily in French.

However, about the change in the language of math instruction she said: “I’m secretly a little relieved. It’s occasionally been a challenge to work through math problems in French at home.”

Melanie emphasized the need for more French instruction in kindergarten, as well as in Grades 1-3. “Especially in the younger grades, [students] need that exposure.” She said she doesn’t think math should be taught in English, because it could limit students’ French vocabulary, which they would need in upper levels of school and eventually for work. “It just doesn’t make sense in this city.”

If the changes go forward, Melanie will schedule her daughter in more French extracurricular activities to make up the difference, and provide language instruction at home.

One thing seems clear from talking to parents so passionate about the issue: there is no simple answer. Research may support some of the changes, and only time will reveal the impact on students as they are implemented.

But Kristin put a positive spin on the situation.

“As always, a great teacher will make or break this transition,” she said.

“I have been blessed to date with wonderful teachers for both my children. I can only hope the same for all others.”