'Second-class citizens': Parents demand changes to Durham board's French immersion plan

He's only midway through senior kindergarten, but Sharon Gomez says her son Kaden is already agonizing over a difficult decision: whether to stay in the same school with his older brother or sister when he enters Grade 1.

"It's about which sibling is he going to stay with and which sibling is he going to leave behind," said Gomez.

"That's ripping him right down the centre."

The Gomez family is one of dozens bracing for what could be a major disruption at Maple Ridge Public School in Pickering, which the Durham District School Board (DDSB) may convert from a dual track to a strictly French immersion school this September.

If the plan goes ahead, some 217 students in the existing English stream will be moved to Vaughan Willard Public School, which is 1.6 kilometres away.

For the Gomez family, which has children in both streams, the move would split up their kids and force parents to navigate tricky pick-up, drop-off and child care routines.

"It's going to be an issue," Gomez said. "I really don't know how I'm going to handle it."

Other parents have criticized the school board, accusing it of rushing the plan, which could ultimately affect English students much more than those in French immersion.

Sharon Gomez/Submitted

"It's a very irresponsible proposal," said James Hummel, who has three children in the school's English stream.

He likened the proposal to an "eviction" of English students.

"We feel like we're being treated as second-class citizens," he added.

Decision not yet made, board says

DDSB staff are recommending the move due in part to overcrowding at Maple Ridge PS, which has nine portable classrooms to accommodate students.

The school introduced its French immersion program in 2014, and enrolment has steadily risen. It's got 456 kids this year, more than double the number of English students, though students in French immersion come from a variety of feeder schools in the area.

In a statement to CBC Toronto, the board said moving the remaining English students to nearby Vaughan Willard PS would "balance future portable needs between both schools."

However, the plan has not yet been approved and the board insists a final decision has not been made.

"The process is in keeping with past boundary change or program relocation consultation process practice," wrote superintendent of education Jim Markovski in a statement.

"There is and will be opportunity for parent/guardian voices and concerns to be heard."

However, many parents are not convinced that their questions and concerns will be considered given the timing of the proposed change.

"They don't really have time if they're going to make this radical move in September," said Erika Roberts, who has a daughter in Grade 5.

Google Maps

Her child began walking to school for the first time this year, and Roberts worries a move will prevent her from enjoying her new independence.

"It's kind of to show face," she said of the consultations and open house events scheduled this month. "That's the feeling we're getting."

Parents asking for alternatives

Parents are also angered because the recommendation does not include any alternatives to the full French immersion conversion.

They say the board could consider a range of possibilities, including introducing French immersion programs at more schools in the area, or even grandfathering existing English students until they move on to high school.

The school board plans to host an open house on Jan. 21 to hear from families about the proposed change. It has also set up a dedicated email address and phone line where parents can share their thoughts.

Hummel plans to keep pressuring the board to abandon the proposal, but he is not expecting success.

"As much as we are fighting this ... there is still that sense that this is a done deal," he said.