BACKED UP BY POPULAR DEMAND
Increasing desire for French immersion has Manitoba parents, educators and administrators struggling to cope
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.