In Stephenville, parents are fighting to save early French immersion — again

Parents of incoming kindergarten students at Stephenville Primary School are fighting with the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District to secure early French immersion slots for their children. (Twitter - image credit)
Parents of incoming kindergarten students at Stephenville Primary School are fighting with the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District to secure early French immersion slots for their children. (Twitter - image credit)

Parents of incoming kindergarten students at Stephenville Primary School in September are once again fighting for French immersion education — but the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District says it isn't currently viable.

Over 40 per cent of the 50 incoming kindergarten students are enrolled in early French immersion for the 2023-24 school year, according to PC Stephenville-Port au Port Peninsula MHA Tony Wakeham. But a letter sent to parents by the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District on Jan. 6 says that isn't enough to be considered a sustainable optional program at the school.

"District policy stipulates groupings of 27 for EFI to be considered sustainable and currently, we have 18 students registered at your school," the letter reads. Wakeham said this week that number has since grown to 21 students.

The district says it'll continue to monitor enrolment and make a final decision in April, but that's not good enough for Wendy Brake of Kippens.

Brake and other parents fought successfully to secure French immersion for 24 students last year. She says the number of students in the program has since risen to 26.

She said French immersion is essential in the region, an area of Newfoundland known for its French culture and heritage where the language has diminished through decades of generational trauma.

"The largest [reason] that's close to my heart is the fact that we are of mixed heritage. And a lot of our community has a similar story in which a language was lost. French language was lost through our grandparents," said Brake told CBC News.

"In a lot of cases our grandparents were French first language. Were strapped at school for speaking the language, forced to learn English. And due to that traumatic experience, chose not to teach it to their children. I'm not alone in that I grew up next to my grandparents who spoke French to one another, French to their siblings. English to us."

Brake said teaching students at a young age to be bilingual would benefit them and the community as a whole by creating a more welcoming place for French-speaking people looking to immigrate to the province.

Wakeham says the district and the provincial government should be doing everything in their power to keep French immersion at Stephenville Primary and the region.

"Stop trying to find excuses as to why it can't be done, and find reasons why it should be done," Wakeham said.

French immersion a resources issue, says district

Daniel O'Brien, the English school district's assistant director, says future offerings of early French immersion as an optional program come down to resources.

"Unfortunately, the numbers at Stephenvile primary are such that we would actually need three teachers," O'Brien said. "We wouldn't be able to offer the program within the actual allocation that is given to the school, and we'd have to add additional units to the school to accommodate the numbers that are currently registered."

O'Brien said the district prioritizes the core education program — which includes core French — over an optional program like French immersion.

Submitted by Daniel O'Brien
Submitted by Daniel O'Brien

While there are enough students now enrolled for the program to be offered in kindergarten — the minimum is 20 — O'Brien said the district is also looking ahead to Grade 1, which is when the minimum of 27 will apply.

And while the the district has the capacity to offer French immersion to a kindergarten class, said O'Brien, they don't have the resources to offer it to the following Grade 1 class.

"If we're only starting with 18 kids in Grade 1, you know, by the time they get to junior high or high school, it becomes really complicated and problematic for the administrators in those schools to staff one class with such small numbers and another one with very large numbers," he said.

O'Brien's argument demonstrates the need for more support for French immersion in the school, said Brake, because having children leaving the program means they were failed on some level by the district.

"If they're leaving, then they obviously need more supports," she said.

O'Brien said the district is open to expanding the core French program in some areas.

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