French immersion 'contract' irks some Whitehorse parents

School officials say it's meant to encourage students to build fluency in French — but others are calling the new "French immersion language contract" at a Whitehorse high school needlessly "punitive," and potentially damaging.

The contract was sent home last week with students enrolled in the French immersion program at F.H. Collins Secondary School. It outlines how teachers in the program would begin keeping a record of each time a student uses English in class.

"The parent will be notified of each notice. Following three notices, parents will be contacted by administration to meet and discuss the student's commitment to the French Immersion program," the contract reads.

"To show their commitment to remaining in French Immersion, a re-entry project will be requested."

The contract gives examples of "re-entry projects," such as a presentation on a Francophone subject or participation in a French school activity.

An accompanying letter to parents from the school's vice-principal says the contract is meant to "set out clear expectations" for students, and hold them "accountable for their own use of French."   

Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada

Fawn Fritzen, whose daughter is in the program at F.H. Collins, has mixed feelings. She believes it's important for students to use French as much as possible, but says the contract may be the wrong approach.

"The way that the contract is worded feels potentially very punitive to me. I feel like the three-strikes-you're-out policy that's outlined in the contract could be really damaging," she said.

"Three chances is not actually very many chances, especially when you're changing deeply ingrained habits."

'It makes me worried'

Fritzen says she's also concerned about students who have a tough time at school, in any class.

"School is already a lot of work for those students who are struggling, and adding this extra burden, well, it makes me worried." 

The intent of the contract is to re-engage with the parents ... definitely the intention is not punitive. - Jay Thomas, principal of F.H. Collins Secondary School

There are 255 Grade 8 to Grade 12 students enrolled in French immersion at F.H. Collins. It's the only secondary school in Whitehorse to offer French immersion. 

The contract asks parents to review a list of "requirements" with their children, and initial next to each one:

  • "I understand and respect the terms of this contract"
  • "I will speak French at all times in class"
  • "I will encourage my friends to speak French in class"

It's not clear whether something specific prompted the contract to be devised now, part way through the second semester.

CBC

Principal Jay Thomas says French immersion teachers were simply concerned they were hearing too much English in class. 

"The contract was basically just a reaffirmation of the students' commitment to the French immersion program," Thomas said.

"The intent of the contract is to re-engage with the parents, and legitimately find out if there's something that the school can do to improve and enhance the use of French and French immersion classes ... definitely the intention is not punitive."

Thomas said it's about creating "dialogue" — not removing students from the program.

"It's not a correct framing to say 'three strikes,' because it's not three strikes ... it's all about keeping the students and the parents in the loop and building, ultimately, the fluency in French."

Thomas said he's so far had "very minimal" feedback from parents about the contract. He says some are in support, some have had questions, and "a very small minority" have expressed concern.  

MLA has 'a number of questions'

Yukon Party MLA Scott Kent, meanwhile, says he's heard from some concerned parents — and he wants the education minister to weigh in. 

"It raises a number of questions for me with the minister, with respect to what exactly this means," Kent said.

Steve Silva/CBC

He said it's still not clear to him what happens after the three notices are sent home with a student, and "how [teachers] are going to determine a student's commitment to the French immersion program."

"There's that old saying of whether to use a carrot or a stick, and this certainly seems to be a stick," he said.

Kent also questions why the contract was introduced with no advance notice to parents. He suggests it could have instead been introduced at the start of the next school year.

CBC asked to speak to Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee, but a government spokesperson declined an interview.

"This decision rests with F.H. Collins Secondary School, so Principal Thomas was the right person to speak to it," the spokesperson, Matthew Cameron, wrote in an email.