Students shuffled to school outside neighbourhood because of French immersion entry point

·5 min read
Brad MacPhee's child and a group of others in the same class will be going to Beaconsfield Middle School, a school outside their neighbourhood when they graduate to middle school, because they started French immersion in Grade 3. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Brad MacPhee's child and a group of others in the same class will be going to Beaconsfield Middle School, a school outside their neighbourhood when they graduate to middle school, because they started French immersion in Grade 3. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

A group of French immersion students in Saint John West will find themselves shuffled off to a school outside their neighbourhood this fall, a headache created by the province's frequent shifting of immersion entry points.

The parents seized the opportunity three years ago to enrol their kids in immersion starting in Grade 3 at Island View School.

It was the last year the Grade 3 entry option was offered provincially, and the class was set up after 23 families showed there was enough demand for it under the Department of Education's Policy 309.

They say they were told at the time their kids would be able to continue in that stream this year at Barnhill Memorial School, a middle school in their neighbourhood, if they still met the policy's requirements.

"At the time it was explained to us that so long as the numbers are there, and that the program is sustainable, it shouldn't be an issue," says Brad MacPhee, speaking on behalf of the group of parents.

Now they've learned that Barnhill won't teach the continuation of the Grade 3 entry stream after all, and their kids will have to go to Beaconsfield Middle School for it.

A group of parents whose children go to Island View School say their children will have to go to another school outside their neighbourhood because they started French immersion in Grade 3.
A group of parents whose children go to Island View School say their children will have to go to another school outside their neighbourhood because they started French immersion in Grade 3.(Roger Cosman/CBC)

That means they'll be separated from non-immersion friends who they've been with at Island View, because those friends will be going to Barnhill.

"We don't think it's right that our kids should be uprooted from their peers and moved to a different school just because they made a decision to take on more education at an earlier age," MacPhee said.

He also said some families face the possibility of siblings a year or two apart, who started immersion at two different entry points, ending up at different middle schools at the same time.

MacPhee said back when their kids started Grade 1, many of the parents opted against immersion because it would have meant sending them to a school outside their neighbourhood.

"We said we don't want them to be uprooted from their peers, and now here we are in Grade 6 and it's happening."

Minister firm on ruling

Policy 309 says a district superintendent will set up an immersion class "where there is sufficient interest and where it is deemed to be sustainable over time."

The superintendent can also take into account factors like the availability of teachers and the need for students to take a school bus.

In an email exchange with MacPhee last month, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said the department had reviewed his concerns and there was no violation of Policy 309. "We consider this matter closed," Cardy said.

When MacPhee persisted, Cardy replied again to say his earlier email was "the final word."

Cardy did not respond to an interview request, but spokesperson Flavio Neinow said it's "a careful balancing act" deciding where students should go.

"While we understand that parents may have a preferred school for their child, there are many factors that must be considered," he said.

Nienow said because the decision was up to the district superintendent, "we would direct further questions to the school districts."

Anglophone School District South spokesperson Jessica Hanlon said superintendent Zoe Watson was not available for an interview on the issue last Thursday or Friday.

"I don't think she has any availability or anything to say on this," Hanlon said.

The French-immersion entry point has been a political saga for more than a decade, beginning when the Graham government looked at replacing immersion with a universal French program starting in Grade 5, followed by an immersion option in Grade 6.

In the face of protests and legal action, they backed down and instead moved the entry point for immersion from Grade 1 to Grade 3.

The Gallant government then moved it back to Grade 1 in 2017, despite warnings that frequent changes would create logistical headaches. Cardy has floated changing it again.

Thanks to the Gallant changes, 2018 was the last year that the Grade 3 entry point was available, and that's when the Island View parents realized there were enough of them to trigger Policy 309 and get a class in their own local school.

MacPhee says the change to Beaconsfield is not the end of the world and the kids will adjust.

A group of parents were under the impression their children would be able to graduate to Barnhill Memorial School after finishing at Island View School.
A group of parents were under the impression their children would be able to graduate to Barnhill Memorial School after finishing at Island View School.(Roger Cosman/CBC)

But if the district had warned them about it, some parents would have opted for the non-immersion "English Prime" program at Island View, knowing the Grade 6 late immersion option that has existed for decades would be available at Barnhill.

"When Grade 3 was introduced for the last year, we took advantage of it [in our neighbourhood] and now we're paying the price."

Part of the district's logic for sending the kids to Beaconsfield is that there will be other classes of Grade 3 immersion-entry kids there entering Grade 6, and staff can pool their resources and skills.

"They said the teachers should have an opportunity to collaborate and provide better learning opportunities, and that's all good," he says.

But Beaconsfield is on the other side of the four-lane Saint John Throughway from the neighbourhood where the families live.

Brad MacPhee's child will have to go to Beaconsfield School, a school outside of their neighbourhood, because of the grade in which his child started French immersion.
Brad MacPhee's child will have to go to Beaconsfield School, a school outside of their neighbourhood, because of the grade in which his child started French immersion.(Roger Cosman/CBC)

"We wanted our kids to be able to come to their middle school years with the freedom to walk or bike and show their independence. … So now that option's kind of taken away."

Getting to Beaconsfield would mean walking or cycling on the busy overpass over the throughway or through Simms Corner, a treacherous intersection.

"If you've ever been through Simms Corner, you're not going to send your child through there with a bike," MacPhee says.