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Azra Hussain stops to show a pink bag to her four-year-old daughter Inaaya Hammad’s as they walk to school together for her first day of class on Sept. 7.Katherine Cheng/The Globe and Mail

Azra Hussain’s daughter understands Urdu but generally responds in English. The prospect of adding another language to her four-year-old’s repertoire was both exciting and stressful.

On a call with her Toronto school board last November, she and other parents shared similar worries about a French-immersion program coming to their Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood, an area that serves as a landing pad for newcomers. Would their children be successful learning the language if they don’t have support with it at home?

The meeting gave Ms. Hussain comfort. “I don’t need to know the French language to support my child in schooling. She will be just fine and taken care of,” she said.

So, on Wednesday morning, carrying a butterfly backpack, Inaaya held Ms. Hussain’s hand as they walked the five minutes from her high-rise to Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy for her first day of junior kindergarten.

The school, which serves kindergarten children, plays host to one of four new French-immersion sites that the Toronto District School Board, or TDSB, has opened this fall as part of its efforts to equitably distribute programs to underserved communities. The three other sites are in Scarborough and York South-Weston.

“It’s time that this community gets a variety of things, which includes a French language program as well,” Ms. Hussain said.

Must equal-opportunity French immersion in Toronto include long bus rides for small children?

French immersion has grown in popularity in many parts of the country as parents look to give their children fluency in the language. School boards like the TDSB are contending with how to balance demand while cultivating opportunities for racialized children and newcomer families, who are often excluded from specialized programming because it is not located within a reasonable distance from their homes.

At the TDSB, for example, almost half of French-immersion students are white, whereas 29 per cent of all students at the board identified as white, according to the most recent data from 2019.

Colleen Russell-Rawlins, the TDSB’s education director, said she is hopeful that over time, newcomer families and those who previously didn’t have access to French immersion will grow more interested now that it’s at their doorstep.

This year, Fraser Mustard has two French-immersion classes and about 16 English classrooms that combine junior and senior kindergarten students. (The TDSB has also changed the way it delivers French programming. Early immersion begins in junior kindergarten, not senior kindergarten. Students can also enroll in French immersion in Grade 4.)

“It’s really an opportunity to open the doors literally and figuratively on French immersion in these communities,” Ms. Russell-Rawlins said in an interview Wednesday.

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Four-year-old Inaaya Hammad practices her alphabet as she gets ready for her first day of school.Katherine Cheng/The Globe and Mail

In many parts of the country, French is taught in a variety of ways in school, including French immersion and core French, in which students learn the language as a subject.

Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, who researched specialized programs at TDSB, applauds the board’s initiative to equitably distribute programming. But “it remains to be seen whether the people who access those French immersion programs … are people in those neighbourhoods.”

The wider issue, according to Prof. Gaztambide-Fernandez, is whether language programming in schools needs to change, especially in a diverse city like Toronto where students speak multiple languages at home.

Census data released last month showed that while English and French remained the most commonly spoken languages, the proportion of the population reporting French as their first language declined in all provinces. Meanwhile, the number of people reporting Mandarin and Punjabi as their mother languages grew.

“Given the plurilingual nature of the schooling system that we have, would it make more sense to actually spend those resources in expanding the availability of language programs, not just to French but to other languages?” Prof. Gaztambide-Fernandez asked.

TDSB considering proposal for children to be able to enrol in French immersion as early as junior kindergarten

Ziaulhaq Zarawar, a Thorncliffe Park resident, speaks more than five languages, including Pashto, Urdu and Hindi. His youngest son speaks a mix of Pashto and English, mixing both languages in speech. On Wednesday, the young boy began his lessons in French when he started senior kindergarten at Fraser Mustard.

“I want to give him that opportunity to mess it up with three languages instead of two languages,” Mr. Zarawar joked.

His eldest son entered French immersion last year in Grade 6, and Mr. Zarawar drives him to school in a different neighbourhood. He hadn’t planned on enrolling his five-year-old in French immersion so early but that was before he learned that a new site was opening around the corner from his home.

“If it’s available, why not?” he said, adding that he wants to give his children the work opportunities that come from being bilingual. “I’m pretty sure in a couple of months he will be teaching me the French language.”

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