In­creas­ing de­sire for French im­mer­sion has Man­i­toba par­ents, ed­u­ca­tors and ad­min­is­tra­tors strug­gling to cope

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - GPS - BY NICK MARTIN

YOU feel lucky? Par­ents in Bran­don face a lot­tery to get their chil­dren into French im­mer­sion kinder­garten at one of the city’s schools next Septem­ber.

At least, they’ll be warm.

For the past four win­ters, Bran­don School Divi­sion used an ap­proach not much dif­fer­ent than try­ing to score tick­ets to a must-see rock con­cert: par­ents had to line up overnight in the depths of win­ter to reg­is­ter chil­dren for the few pre­cious spots avail­able at École Har­ri­son.

South of Win­nipeg, Josh Fir­lotte stud­ies French im­mer­sion at a school 15 min­utes from his home — it takes him 90 min­utes to get there. His par­ents are livid Josh has to spend three hours a day on a school bus to at­tend in one of the most pop­u­lar school pro­grams in Man­i­toba.

They live in Niverville, in Hanover School Divi­sion, which does not of­fer French im­mer­sion, and Josh is in Grade 7 at École St. Pierre, which is in Red River Val­ley School Divi­sion. Josh is one of the luck­ier ru­ral stu­dents be­cause Red River Val­ley is a rar­ity in send­ing a bus into an­other divi­sion — most French im­mer­sion stu­dents out­side of Win­nipeg and Bran­don have to live in the divi­sion of­fer­ing the pro­gram or have par­ents will­ing to drive them to and from school.

In Win­nipeg, hun­dreds more chil­dren en­rol in French im­mer­sion ev­ery year, forc­ing school divi­sions to change catch­ment ar­eas, trans­form English or dual-track schools into French-im­mer­sion fa­cil­i­ties, beg the prov­ince to build new schools or, in one case, trade an over­ca­pac­ity French im­mer­sion school straight-up for a larger English school full of empty seats.

While over­all pub­lic school en­rol­ment has re­mained rel­a­tively stag­nant, de­mand for French im­mer­sion in Man­i­toba has never been higher — up 19.3 per cent in the last five years. There are now 23,540 French im­mer­sion stu­dents, ac­cord­ing to the Cana­dian Par­ents for French ad­vo­cacy group.

Education Min­is­ter James Al­lum said the growth is pos­i­tive but comes with chal­lenges. He won’t tell Bran­don what to do, nor will he prom­ise more pro­vin­cial money for ad­di­tional school buses to guar­an­tee a ride for ev­ery ru­ral child who wants to take French im­mer­sion in a dis­tant town, he said.

Al­lum added the prov­ince has com­mit­ted to build­ing a new school at the south end of Bran­don, but the board has not yet de­cided if it will have French im­mer­sion.

Last year, the prin­ci­pal of École Har­ri­son came to the school at mid­night on Feb. 1 to open the doors so par­ents who’d lined up hours be­fore would not freeze overnight.

This year, board chair­man Mark Sefton said trustees opted for a ran­dom draw, which will be held at the end of Fe­bru­ary. Har­ri­son ac­cepts 40 kinder­garten chil­dren into French im­mer­sion each year, but if a child has a sib­ling al­ready in the school, that child gets a spot. Of the 40 spots avail­able last Septem­ber, 19 were taken by sib­lings of older chil­dren al­ready en­rolled at Har­ri­son.

For those not se­lected, they will still have the op­por­tu­nity for French im­mer­sion at the divi­sion’s other dual-track school in Bran­don, Sefton said.

The pres­i­dent of the Man­i­toba branch of Cana­dian Par­ents for French, which lob­bies gov­ern­ments to make French im­mer­sion more ac­ces­si­ble, was sur­prised to hear Bran­don had been us­ing overnight line­ups.

“I was shocked,” Philip Fenez said from his home near La Salle.

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