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School swap considered

French immersion pinch may prompt rare move

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A growth in the number of French immersion students has the Louis Riel School Division pitching a straight-up swap of schools.

That's the most practical scenario put forward in the division's latest enrolment dilemma fuelled by parents' zeal for French immersion.

"Around 32 per cent of our students are in French immersion -- we're trending quite high," said superintendent Duane Brothers.

English stream Hastings School and French immersion École Marie-Anne-Gaboury sit at opposite ends of a large playing field west of Dunkirk Drive -- and the most practical solution seems to be for students and staff to grab their stuff and trade schools, passing each other halfway across that shared field. Some education officials say such a swap would be unprecedented in this area.

Hastings is starting to look somewhat empty, while Gaboury is bursting at the seams, Brothers explained.

Hastings is down to 270 kids in a space built for 565; Gaboury has 358 in a school built for 340.

By 2018, the respective numbers are expected to be 246 and 433 -- for Gaboury, that's 127 per cent of capacity.

Brothers said many of the division's neighbourhoods have a francophone heritage, increasing interest in immersion programs.

The division could ask the province for the money to add six portables and build an addition onto Gaboury.

Farther north, École Varennes is another French immersion school with capacity issues, which could benefit if some of its kids moved to Gaboury -- if only Gaboury had a larger space.

The division is consulting parents, but Brothers has pointed out the obvious: "We believe the best possible solution to alleviate population pressures in north St. Vital-Pulberry would be an exchange of school buildings between Hastings School and École Marie-Anne-Gaboury."

Nevertheless, said Brothers, "Schools are filled with people and families that have put down lots of roots. People have lots of questions; they have concerns."

Brothers said both schools have good gyms and similar facilities; Gaboury is two storeys and Hastings one, which makes it more accessible, he said.

But Hastings parent Hilary Druxman argued Friday Hastings has better facilities than Gaboury and said the division is pitting members of the community against each other by being reckless.

Instead of moving all those kids, Druxman asked, why not take the Gaboury students being bused from south of Bishop Grandin Boulevard and ease the pressure by placing them in Darwin or Minnetonka schools, which have empty desks?

Brothers said the next consultation will be at Hastings School on Wednesday evening.

Education officials can't recall any other one-for-one deal in which students and teachers at one school would trade buildings with all the students and teachers at another school.

Carolyn Duhamel, executive director of the Manitoba School Boards Association, said such swaps were considered in the former St. Boniface division decades ago, but were dropped after amalgamation with the tiny Norwood -- those two divisions were amalgamated with the St. Vital division in 2002 to form the current Louis Riel.

French immersion enrolment has fluctuated in Manitoba public schools, reaching more than 18,000 students by 2008. However, by 2011, Statistics Canada said French immersion enrolment was down to fewer than 16,000.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 10, 2014 0

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