Triple-grading. Lotteries. And now, redirecting English-track students away from their home school.
The surging interest in French immersion is forcing school officials to find new ways to house the growing number of students – and at least one Ontario school board is studying an option that would move students in the English program out of their home school in order to accommodate the rise in French immersion pupils.
Staff at the Halton District School Board have put forward a recommendation for schools that house both an English stream and French immersion program, dubbed dual-track schools. If there are so few English-track students left in a school that it would result in triple grading, those students would be moved to another school. The home school would then become a French-immersion school. The school board is looking for community input on its proposal and recommendations will be presented to trustees in the fall.
Jeff Blackwell, the board's associate director, acknowledged that the recommendation has upset many parents.
"The challenge is that ... the take up for Grade 1 French immersion has been very, very high leaving Grade 1 English with very, very few kids, like five, three or one," Mr. Blackwell said of dual-track schools. "We want to ensure that our students, whether they're taking the English program or French immersion or core French, that they're getting a really solid program."
Enrolment in French immersion programs has grown as parents look to give their children an edge. Recent Statistics Canada data showed the number of students registered in French-immersion programs rose 28 per cent between 1991-92 and 2010-11. The entry point for French immersion is in Grade 1 in many Ontario school boards, and there is generally no cap on the number of students.
Mr. Blackwell said that in Halton, the uptake for Grade 1 French immersion in schools that have both English and French programs can be as high as 90 per cent.
Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said many school boards are wrestling with accommodating French immersion students. "In some boards, they're already starting to reach a tipping point," Mr. Barrett. "Not only is there a problem with limitation on space, but there's also a problem in being able to get qualified teachers for French."
At the Toronto District School Board, all students are offered a spot in French Immersion, but they are not guaranteed a spot at the school closest to their home. Triple grading, where three classes are meshed together, "is always a possibility," a TDSB spokesman said. This past school year, the Peel District School Board capped French immersion at 25 per cent of total Grade 1 enrolment, and used a lottery system when the number of students registered exceeded the available spots.
Jill McFarland, a mother of two in Oakville, Ont., said that school officials in Halton are not treating English-track students fairly. Her youngest daughter is in Grade 6. The school started a French immersion program this past year, and Ms. McFarland fears that children in the English stream could be pushed out.
"It's a public school system that needs to serve all children, regardless of program choice. The mandated and the optional programs need to coexist in the same building," she said. "They're not putting anything in place to protect the mandated program."