B.C. parents face lineups, lotteries for French immersion

Greater Victoria, Saanich and Sooke districts all prepared to use lotteries for early French immersion students

More than 200 students could soon be on waiting lists for French-immersion programs around B.C., says the head of a parent group for French students.

And that’s a conservative estimate, said Glyn Lewis, executive director of Canadian Parents for French, B.C. and the Yukon.

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The total is hard to calculate because school districts don’t always share their French-immersion enrolment totals publicly, but Lewis said the total might be four or five times the current estimate.

None of the students on waiting lists around B.C. should be turned away from French-immersion classes, which can be life-changing for them, Lewis said.

His organization says an added language can lead to improved concentration and a better insight into other cultures, while Statistics Canada found that people who speak both official languages earn an average of 10 per cent more than those who don’t.

In the capital region, all three school districts are prepared to use a lottery system for French-immersion enrolment this year.

Saanich school district superintendent Dave Eberwein said the district will have a lottery in place for the first time this year for early French-immersion kindergarten.

“We haven’t seen our kindergarten-enrolment numbers yet, but we are reaching a point where we have to be careful with the number of registrations versus the number of available classroom spaces that we have,” Eberwein said. “We’re moving to a lottery-type system here just in case demand exceeds capacity.”

He said the district has so far been able to meet demand for French-immersion programs and has avoided a wait-list.

“There’s not an infinite amount of space for programs and so we have to make sure that we’re being thoughtful and proactive, to make sure that there’s a fair process in place.”

The Greater Victoria School District has had a lottery system for French immersion for a number of years, said school board chairwoman Jordan Watters. “It’s imperfect, obviously, not everybody is going to win the lottery.”

But the lottery adds fairness to the process, Watters said.

Figures from 2017 put the district at the top of the list for French-immersion participation in B.C., with about 20 per cent of its 19,000 students taking part. There are about 365 new students in early French immersion each year.

Sooke school board chairman Ravi Parmar said efforts have been made to keep French immersion accessible. The district has about 11,000 students, including 1,400 in French immersion. About 300 early French-immersion students are added in the district each year in kindergarten or Grade 1.

“We’ve never, as a district, capped French immersion, and that’s not something that’s changing this year,” Parmar said. “There are going to be situations where there are wait-lists, and we’ve brought in a lottery this year to add a bit more equity to the system.”

The lottery will kick in only if needed, he said.

“There are two things right now that are stopping us from having more French-immersion seats,” he said. “One is space and the other is the amount of personnel. It is very difficult to hire French-immersion teachers in B.C.”

Lewis said a shortage of French teachers has been the primary factor in the growing wait-lists around the province — which he said have been getting worse over the past two years.

An estimated 150 additional teachers were needed at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, he said.

But he said the federal and provincial governments have put a lot of effort into increasing the number of teachers, including committing $62 million in federal money in 2018 for recruitment and retention.

“I think in a year or two from now, we’re going to see hundreds of new French teachers that we didn’t have before,” he said.

As for space concerns, he said: “Generally we find that the space argument isn’t really there — it’s more how you manage the space.”

He said that having too many students signing up for French immersion can be dealt with.

“What if you have 20 kids on your wait-list after you close the registration? You have to put those kids in a classroom somewhere.”

Registration for early French-immersion kindergarten begins Jan. 28 in the Saanich and Sooke districts. It has closed in the Greater Victoria district.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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