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British Columbia B.C. seeks French teachers – and finds those who can, won’t

A student in the French Immersion program at Laura Secord Elementary in Vancouver on April 3, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

In the queue for French immersion, Erin McCall's daughter is No. 192.

It's a figure that puts the aspiring bilingual at the bottom of the wait list in the school district of Surrey, B.C., but – if denied – makes her one of an estimated 1,000 children turned away from the province's French immersion programs every year.

Since 2003, French-immersion enrolment in B.C. public schools has increased by 47.5 per cent, despite overall public-school enrolment decreasing by 9.1 per cent. The growing wait lists are being attributed to a shortage in qualified French-immersion teachers that even recruitment efforts to other provinces – and overseas – cannot fill.

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Ms. McCall says she spent 40 minutes calling in to the district's education centre on registration day in January, only to be put on hold for another 20 minutes upon connection. She then received her unpromising spot in the queue. Nearly three months later, she still has no confirmation whether her four-year-old daughter has secured a spot.

"I am a parent with a true interest in having my children learn the French language," said Ms. McCall, a product of French immersion herself. "I benefited from an excellent experience in Surrey schools and it is reasonable to expect that my child be given the same opportunity."

In the 2010-2011 school year, 7.8 per cent of eligible students enrolled in B.C. public schools were in French immersion, a figure similar to Nova Scotia (7.8 per cent) and Ontario (7.9 per cent). Alberta had the lowest French enrolment, at 5.9 per cent, and Quebec the highest, not surprisingly, at 36 per cent.

Based on informal surveys with school districts and parents, the national advocacy group Canadian Parents for French estimates students are turned away from French immersion programs in about 23 B.C. communities every year.

For Ms. McCall, French immersion has opened countless doors. She credits her first job out of university, with the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, to her language proficiency: "I was basically hired on the spot because they needed someone to take over the planning of an international symposium that would take place in Quebec City," she said.

She has used French in every job since, including in her current role as owner of a small letterpress business based in Surrey. "I have long-term clients in France that choose to work with me over my American counterparts because I can communicate with them in French," she said.

The desire to pass on the same kinds of opportunities to her children is one of the chief reasons she – like countless other parents – is fighting for those coveted French immersion spots. Supporters also point to multiple studies that suggest bilingualism benefits cognitive development and question why one wouldn't want to be fluent in both of Canada's official languages.

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While exact figures breaking down the supply and demand mismatch are hard to come by, it's crystal clear to those involved in the sector, like Janet Stewart. From 2008 to 2012, Ms. Stewart served as director of Make a Future – Careers in B.C. Education, an arm of the B.C. Public School Employers' Association responsible for recruiting teachers for B.C.'s 60 school districts.

"There is definitely a problem with supply compared to demand," said Ms. Stewart, who is now associate superintendent of human resources at the Vancouver School Board.

She recalled one year when Make a Future had more than 240 full-time job postings for French immersion teachers. In comparison, B.C.'s two major universities – the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University – only produced a total of between 40 and 60 French-immersion-qualified teachers a year, according to Wendy Carr, director of the teacher education program at UBC and former French programs co-ordinator. In 2012 and 2013, B.C. had 234 and 245 postings for French immersion teachers, respectively.

Put another way: While B.C. certifies a total of about 2,700 teachers a year – only a third of whom will be able to find work in B.C. – it produces about one-fifth of the French immersion teachers needed.

In efforts to address the shortage, B.C. has had to look outside the province. Make a Future's ongoing relationships with postsecondary institutions across Canada – such as the University of Ottawa, in particular, Ms. Stewart noted – have proved fruitful. But qualified teachers in Montreal are still reluctant to leave Quebec.

For three years during her time as director, Ms. Stewart travelled to Paris with representatives from what was then called the Ministry of Advanced Education and Labour Market Development as part of an initiative to promote French immigration to provinces outside of Quebec. Representing B.C. education as a sector, Ms. Stewart attended immigration events, developing ongoing relationships and recruiting seven French-immersion teachers over the three years.

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However, Ms. Stewart's former position was eliminated when the BCPSEA sought to find efficiencies and recruiting responsibilities were largely shifted to individual school districts. While Make a Future's relationships still produce occasional matches, some feel not nearly enough is being done for French teacher recruitment on a provincial level.

"That's not really taking action or addressing the problem," said Glyn Lewis, executive director of CPF's B.C. and Yukon branch. "What actions is the ministry taking, specifically, to really address the shortage of qualified French teachers?"

In a March meeting with Education Minister Peter Fassbender, the group proposed the province use federal funds it receives under the Official Languages in Education Protocol to create a French-immersion growth grant that school boards can apply for. This would help schools develop or expand French immersion programs and cover unique start-up costs such as textbooks and learning assistants.

It also asked the province to develop teacher mobility agreements that would facilitate the transfer of qualified French teachers between province.

Mr. Fassbender said he was supportive of French immersion and that the province was committed to addressing the shortage of teachers, Mr. Lewis said. A ministry spokesman told The Globe and Mail it was also having "ongoing discussions" with post-secondary institutions to identify the needs, demands and opportunities in the sector.

"To me," Mr. Lewis said, "that isn't enough."

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