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Demand for French immersion has never been higher in Manitoba

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/7/2014 (1118 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There's a myth French immersion is an elite program designed exclusively for kids whose parents think their children are smarter than everyone else.

There's a myth kids who are struggling in school would be hurt rather than helped by studying using a second language.

Tyesha Courchaine and (right) Sage Baldwin read book together .


Tyesha Courchaine and (right) Sage Baldwin read book together .

Melissa Therrien (left) and Matthew Hodgins are education students at Universite de Saint-Boniface who are grads of French immersion system and want to be French immersion teachers.


Melissa Therrien (left) and Matthew Hodgins are education students at Universite de Saint-Boniface who are grads of French immersion system and want to be French immersion teachers.

Gr. 6 student Mackenzie  Alexander is eager to answer questions.


Gr. 6 student Mackenzie Alexander is eager to answer questions.

There's a myth problems with math and science will magically disappear the instant anglophone children drop out of French immersion.

And while educators and parent advocates work diligently to dispel these myths, enrolment in French immersion is nevertheless exploding throughout 22 of Manitoba's 37 public school divisions with roughly one in eight children taking French immersion.

That growth will only get more amazing.

In the new Winnipeg megasuburb of Sage Creek, parents of 45 per cent of the preschool-aged children have told Louis Riel School Division they would enrol their children in French immersion if a program were available.

Currently, half the children who start French immersion stay in the program through Grade 12, a percentage that's slowly growing, augmented by a huge bump in enrolment numbers in the youngest grades.

Yet how can an idea so popular in public education cause turmoil, discord and apprehension? Primarily because it's so popular.

That wave of popularity has caused a space problem in many schools, a space crisis in some, and has the Université de Saint-Boniface scrambling to train enough education graduates proficient in French, particularly in math, science and specialty subjects.

Manitoba Canadian Parents for French president Paulette Vielfaure Dupuis is into busting myths.

The retired principal at École Centrale in Transcona says research shows children who have learning disabilities or speech problems do better if they're learning a second language. Research also shows immersion kids think differently, particularly in regards to global issues and cultures.

"We know darned well it's working; now, it's why is it working?" Dupuis said.


-- -- --


French immersion in Manitoba has never been bigger than now. There are 22 school divisions offering immersion and enrolment numbers are growing in each one. Enrolment across the province in the school year just ended was 22,155 out of 181,457 public school students.

"It's never been that high," said assistant deputy minister of education Jean-Vianney Auclair.

"Parents are still looking for the best opportunitiecols for their kids. French immersion is seen as enrichment."

French immersion is big throughout Winnipeg, but especially in the Louis Riel School Division, which includes old St. Boniface.

"There is a significant population close to French language and culture," Auclair said. "Some families entitled to the Division Scolaire Franco-Manitobaine (children must have at least one francophone parent) choose French immersion schools."

About 95 per cent of children start in kindergarten or Grade 1, with a very small number of grades 4 and 7 late-entry programs. "There is some early attrition, then it stabilizes," he said.

"It is fairly common to see some attrition in middle school because of math and science," Auclair said. "Sometimes we will continue to see kids struggle -- it does not solve the problem."

Dupuis said the province is seeing generational benefits as French-immersion grads are enrolling their own children. Meanwhile, a lot of immigrants put their children into immersion.

"French immersion presents 25 per cent of the learning time as English. Immigrant parents are saying, kill two birds with one stone," Dupuis said.


-- -- --


In Louis Riel French-immersion schools, even the janitor speaks French. And the secretaries and the education assistants.

The division, which has almost one child in three in immersion, has been historically strong in delivering the program and has "certainly established a strong cohort of teachers," said superintendent Duane Brothers.

The division's two French-language high schools, Collège Jeanne-Sauvé and Collège Béliveau, have a capacity of 650 each, but will be pushing 700 to 800 kids in a couple of years.

And there is bigger growth coming in the Sage Creek suburb where parents of 45 per cent of newborn to preschoolers indicated, given a choice, they'd have their child in a French-immersion school.

That's almost four times the provincial average and in a subdivision in which most families have English as a first language.

Said LRSD assistant superintendent Christian Michalik: "When we meet with colleagues in other parts of the country, they're surprised" at the extent of French-immersion enrolment.

The first Sage Creek K-8 school, opening in 2016 with an anticipated 600 students, will start as a dual-track, a rarity in Louis Riel. The division had already put in a request for a second school for the area, after which there would be one school of each language track. Good luck figuring out which is which without having parents grab pitchforks and torches and marching on the board office.

"Neighbourhoods go through their own stories. We have to pay attention to all the areas of LRSD and make sure we're ahead," Brothers said.

But it hasn't been easy -- with trustees making a major decision last spring to accommodate growth.

Fresh off one upheaval that saw École Julie-Riel and St. Germain schools become K-5 French immersion, and George McDowell become a 6-8 French immersion school, trustees approved the St. Vital area schools of Hastings and Marie-Anne Gaboury, which share a playground, literally changing places in September. The smaller French-immersion Gaboury is beyond capacity, while the larger Hastings building has hundreds of empty seats for its English-track students.

The division doesn't want portables to accommodate growth, Brothers said. But it does want the best teachers available.

"We want the really good teachers -- we are quite aggressive with our recruiting. We are pre-hiring, we are interviewing early in the year" long before education students graduate.


-- -- --


The Université de Saint-Boniface graduates 40 new teachers each year, but Manitoba's education system needs far more French-fluent teachers, said education dean Stefan Delaquis.

"There are more jobs than we have teacher candidates...," he said.

"Frequently, I get calls from the school divisions asking how many graduates we'll be having. We would like to have more students. We could easily have 50."

The biggest demand is for math and science teachers, but also phys ed, too. However, the teachers have to be exceptionally strong in French.

"They need to be linguistic models," Delaquis said.

The attrition rate of French-speaking teachers leaving the profession last tracked in 2008 was eight per cent, compared with 26 per cent of all teachers leaving the profession in their first five years.

French schools offer a lot of resources, he said: "It's a good place to work."

USB education student Melissa Therrien's first language is English.

"I'm from a French family that became anglicized," Therrien explained. "I would hear my grandmother speaking French, and I think it was just the coolest thing."

It was the winter of her Grade 6 year that Therrien decided to become a French language teacher. "We had a lot of indoor recesses," and teachers asked the Grade 6 kids to look after the Grade 1 children while they went for lunch. "I loved that, I thought it was the neatest thing."

Parents need to be very involved when they enrol their kids in French immersion, Therrien said.

"It's a long process that's going to take your entire life. Sending your kids to French immersion -- you can't just wipe your hands of that, there's a lot of support you need."


-- -- --


Brandon has opened a CPF branch, said president Kerri Lynn Gudz, with two dual-track schools -- at Shilo and New Era -- and a single-track school, Harrison, which was formerly an English middle years school.

The school switch, to accommodate growing enrolment, was not a pleasant experience, Gudz said.

"It was a really awful process to go through -- elitist charges were laid out," she said.

Finding space remains a challenge, and teachers more so.

"I know (teacher) recruitment is difficult. Specialists will be an issue in future," she said. But "it's a national issue, it's not going away."

In the near north, they rely on interactive TV for teachers to reach the students.

Chris Chmelowski's Grade 9 son attends Swan Valley Regional Secondary School, but his teachers are hundreds of kilometres away in The Pas, Flin Flon and Dauphin.

"We're lucky we can share teachers. I think his math teacher is in Dauphin. That's new (the technology) as of last year. It's amazing, it's like Skyping," Chmelowski said.

"They all have smartboards. If the teacher writes something, it shows up on all the smartboards. The teachers are young -- they're all over that stuff."

Back in Winnipeg, sharing buildings remains a sore point.

Parent Jaime Glenat's loves the idea of immersion for her kids. But the booming popularity at École Dieppe School in Charleswood will mean her children will have to leave Dieppe after Grade 4 and attend a dual-track school at Charleswood Junior High, which is a concern.

"At the age of 10, my daughter will no longer be fully immersed in French. Her first language is English, and what signs will she read? The announcements will be in English."


Read more by Nick Martin.


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