The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District has axed the early French immersion program for the incoming kindergarten class at Sacred Heart Academy in Marystown due to low enrolment.
In a statement, the district says the program will continue for students in Grade 1, but only five children applied for the optional program in kindergarten, which isn't enough to support it.
Kimberly Young, a mother of three school-age children, is trying to fight the decision.
Young has two children — Sebastian, who's going into Grade 5, and Anna, going into Grade 2 — enrolled in French immersion at the school. She said she wants her youngest child, Jasper, to have the same advantages early French immersion provides.
"He's done French preschool in preparation for it. He already speaks little French phrases and he really is looking forward to being able to be in 'big French school,'" said Young, who hasn't broken the news about the program's cancellation to the five-year-old yet.
Young said she fears the cancellation will have repercussions in future years.
"It's not just taking kindergarten away from these students. By putting these students in the English stream and not giving them the opportunity for French, they won't have the opportunity for early French immersion at all," she said.
The school district's statement said it looks at not only the number of children entering a program, but also at its future viability, since students typically drop out of the program as they get older.
"It becomes near impossible to provide programming for extremely low numbers once students reach junior high and high school." reads the statement.
Young said she's also looking at the future — the one French-language education will provide for her son.
She said it will open the door to better job opportunities for her children later in life, but says it's already paying off for her eldest son, who recently helped a man from nearby French territory St-Pierre-et-Miquelon.
"He actually struck up a conversation with a French-speaking man when we were in Walmart one day and helped this man find what he was looking for. So we're already seeing the benefits," she said.
Mom calls for multi-grading
Young said she has a solution to the problem: she'd like to see the five kindergarten students and 13 students in Grade 1 at the school multi-graded: combined into one class to allow the program to go ahead.
"We're not expecting a full French immersion class just for these five students. That wouldn't be practical on any level." she said.
Young said a letter sent to parents last month shows multi-grading is already proposed for a number of grades at the K-7 school next year.
"So I'm not sure why that was dismissed as an option," she said, adding that the letter talked about how students in multi-graded classes were academically successful.
The school district says combining Kindergarten and Grade 1 isn't possible or sustainable over the long term and class groups are based on having 27 students in a class.
Parents in the area could recruit more students to enrol in French immersion next year, said Young, but they're coming off a difficult three years under the COVID-19 pandemic, and some parents were hesitant to put their kids in French, fearing they wouldn't be able to help with school work if there are anymore lockdowns.
"I think that some allowances need to be made for that. I know that for the next kindergarten year in 2023, 2024, there are already 10 students enrolled in that class with the potential for more."
This isn't the first time the early French immersion program has been on the chopping block.
In 2017, only 10 students were enrolled, which put the program in jeopardy for the 2018 year, but parents recruited more students, 14 in total, into the program to keep it going.
For the 2022-23 school year, the district says nearly 3,000 kindergarten students in Newfoundland and Labrador are registered for the English stream, while about 850 are registered for French. Provincewide, for the past two school years 63,000 students in total were enrolled in the school system for K-12, and about 10,000 of them are registered for French immersion.
Projections for Early French Immersion Kindergarten 2022-23
For the upcoming school year, there are French immersion kindergarten classes offered at 23 of the province's approximately 250 schools.
Young said advocacy group Canadian Parents for French has been advocating for the restoration of the program and is lobbying MHAs, sending letters to the school district, school council and commissioner of official languages.
Young said she acknowledges the population and number of children in the area are declining, which affects the level of services available to people.
"We don't have as many opportunities. We don't have as many programs as the urban areas, and personally speaking, when we decided to move here in 2008, the French immersion option for our children was a big selling point," she said.
In a previous statement, the school district said if early French immersion isn't available at a family's zoned school, the district may allow them to transfer to the another school that offers the program if there is room.
But Young says that's not an option since Sacred Heart Academy is the only school on the Burin Peninsula offering French immersion.
Young also says the cancellation of French immersion kindergarten will force people, including her own family, to contemplate moving.
"So in order to transfer to another program, we would actually have to move out of the region, off the peninsula altogether," she said.
"We may have to consider going elsewhere," she said.