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Parents concerned about future of early French immersion at Marystown school

The school council at Sacred Heart Academy in Marystown is considering concerns raised by parents over food allergies in light of recent changes at McDonald's restaurants in Canada.
The school council at Sacred Heart Academy in Marystown is considering concerns raised by parents over food allergies in light of recent changes at McDonald's restaurants in Canada.

MARYSTOWN, NL – A recent decision by the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD) not to offer French immersion to students entering Sacred Heart Academy’s Kinderstart program next month has upset many parents.

Parents were notified of the decision by telephone last week.

“I am devastated,” Jess Reid wrote in a message to the Southern Gazette.

“I have one child in French (immersion) and to think that my younger child won't be given the same opportunities is heart breaking.”

Martine Russell, who also has children in the immersion program, said she was shocked when she got a call saying there would be no Early French Immersion (EFI) Kindergarten class offered at Sacred Heart Academy next year.

“I have two older sons in Grades 5 and 3 French immersion and a 16-month-old son that I had fully intended to register for French as well.”
Russell said it’s a frustrating situation.

“I graduated in 2000 as part of the second class to complete the French immersion program in Marystown,” she explained. “I have never doubted our decision to raise our family in ‘small-town’ Newfoundland until now.

“To think that my children might be afforded less opportunities than I was myself 30 years ago is beyond ridiculous and frustrating to say the least.”

Parents with children just entering the school system are also questioning the decision.

Jessica Harris explained she had plans to enroll her son in the program.

“I have always known that when I had children I wanted to put them in French immersion. It's part of the reason we live in Marystown.

“I see the benefits of being bilingual, because I am not. I want my children to have the opportunity to be fluent in both of Canada's national languages.”

Charlene Evans, chair of the local chapter of the Canadian Parents for French, said NLESD’S decision not to offer the immersion program to students entering the Kindergarten program came as a surprise.

“I found out through the community that it had happened,” she explained. “We had no consultation.”

Evans wishes there had been more time to debate the decision, “that we had been informed, so that maybe we could do more advocacy.”

She added with 10 out of 38 students enrolled in the Kindergarten program doing immersion, it puts the ratio at a similar level as in past years.

“We always get around one-third of the students, that hasn’t changed – it’s just enrollment is down.”

Evans said it was not made clear to her by officials how many students would be needed in the immersion program to justify offering it.

“My hope was that we would be able to get together with the school district to be able to come up with a solution.”

She said the two groups could get together and brainstorm a way to keep the program.

“We’ve had it on the peninsula for between 32-33 years – our children are losing out on an educational opportunity, and right now outside (the) larger centers, Marystown is the only area in rural Newfoundland that (that offers) early French immersion, so it’s a big loss to the Burin Peninsula.”

No consultation

Concerned parents have also contacted local area MHA Mark Browne, who issued a media release on Wednesday.

“The so-called plan to remove (early) French Immersion from Sacred Heart Academy featured no consultation, surprising the parents, the community and myself,” Browne said in the release.

“This program has existed and survived since 1985, giving countless parents the opportunity and choice to have their children immersed in French. I, myself, had the great fortune of being enrolled in this program and know the benefits firsthand.”

He added Sacred Heart Academy’s French immersion program existed as a result of advocacy and a long-held community belief in the benefits of learning Canada's second official language.

“As this was a decision made by the school district, I encourage all those who are concerned to contact the district and the local school board trustee.”

Browne said he tried to contact NLESD, but to date has not received a call back.

“The school district owes it to the community to have a reasonable conversation on this issue rather than showing up to a school council meeting to announce their plan with no consultation,” said Browne.

No final decision

A release issued by Lucy Warren, associate director of education – programs and operations (interim) for the NLESD states: “At this time, no decision has been made with respect to the future offering of … EFI, in particular for the 2018-2019 Kindergarten class of Sacred Heart Academy.

“With that said, at this time enrollment levels in the Kindergarten EFI program for next year are not high enough to warrant offering of a sustainable class. Early French immersion is an optional program and enrollment numbers must be sustainable for a teaching unit to be allocated for a class.”

The release stated a final decision would not be made until April, when the staffing process commences.

Meanwhile, should enrollment in EFI increase – if students currently registered for English at Sacred Heart decide to enroll in EFI, or if new students enrolling at the school choose the program – “an allocation may be made for such a class,” Warren stated.

In response to the statement, Jess Reid asked Warren, “I would assume from your letter that the program is not cancelled, as of yet, and the kids are still considered FI enrolled for the time being?”

She also expressed that until a final decision is made, students currently enrolled in the EFI Kinderstart program should have the opportunity to do it.

“If I am wrong and you have decided the program is cancelled, then that would be the only reasoning for not going on as planned,” she wrote.
Warren said EFI students would not be at a disadvantage should the program be offered when they enter Kindergarten

“Kinderstart is a transition program for students – it’s intended to facilitate a smooth transition to school for our four-year-olds,” said Warren.

“It’s the first connection with home and school, it provides the children an opportunity to become familiar with the Kindergarten environment, it’s their first experiences at school and of course it gives educators an opportunity as well to become familiar with the children—and prepare to meet their needs based on the observations they make.”

She said the program itself is not specifically targeted to English or French. “All the children do the same program, so in terms of the French immersion Kindergarten class for next year, we said there would be a decision made in the spring based on the enrollment at that time.”

She added parents interested in the immersion program who would like to enroll their children can contact her office.
“We don’t want to go with a Kinderstart as a French immersion stream, because it’s setting up a false expectation until the decision is actually made.”

She said the Kinderstart program is not meant to teach the French language; it is a play-based system meant to help promote social and mental development.

While Warren said there is no exact number needed to make the French program viable, she said declining enrollment at the school does play a role in the programs offered.

“Years ago, they would between 65-70 students, which would constitute a three-stream school,” she explained. “So generally, we need a three-stream school to make a French immersion program.”

Warren said in that case, the school would have 25-30 per cent of its Kindergarten class enrolled in the French program, “and that would have been one class versus two in English, because they had that population.

“So what’s occurring here is the overall number of students entering the school is decreasing … and it’s very difficult to have a French immersion stream in a school with a population that size.”

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