Skip to main content
English stream students in split Grade 1 and 2 class at Tom Thomson Public School in Burlington, Ontario. Teacher: Ms Amanda Heilesen.

Of the 57 Grade 1 kids at Tom Thomson Public School in Burlington, Ontario, 53 are in French immersion. The remaining four are in Ms. Amanda Heilesen’s split Grade 1 and 2 class.

KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/for The Globe and Mail

French immersion enrolment is booming to the point of leaving English-stream classrooms with fewer students. Caroline Alphonso reports on how schools and parents are grappling with the unintended consequences of the French immersion crush

Katherine McIntosh, a mother of two in the western Toronto suburb of Burlington, is nervous. Her eldest daughter is struggling in French immersion at Clarksdale Public School, but she is reluctant to remove Madison from the program.

Madison, 7, finds the workload overwhelming and she's having difficulty grasping a second language. Ms. McIntosh doesn't speak French and is frustrated that she can't help her daughter with her homework. Her husband does, but he's only home six days a month. Help usually comes via Facetime.

The couple have gone back and forth on whether to pull Madison out. They've reasoned that their daughter would not drop history or math just because the work was difficult. So why should she be allowed to leave French?

Adding to her worries, Ms. McIntosh says that by pulling Madison out of French immersion, her daughter might "slip between the cracks" in the system.
Those cracks, as Ms. McIntosh sees them, are in English-only program.

Friends and teachers have been telling her the English stream is increasingly home to more children with behavioural and learning issues, and she doesn't want Madison to fall further behind because a teacher's time is already so taxed. Enrolment in the traditional English program has been shrinking, and Ms. McIntosh is afraid it might be phased from Clarksdale altogether. And even though her daughter is struggling, she figures at least the French-immersion teacher has time to help.

The French immersion boom
As enrolment skyrockets, a new linguistic category emerges The Globe's Joe Friesen traces the growth of French Immersion going back to the 1970s and how it is taking root one generation to the next.

"I'm afraid that wouldn't happen in the English stream because there would be more kids with higher needs," Ms. McIntosh says. "We're nervous about the English program at our school."

Ms. McIntosh's worries are not hers alone.

Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau's vision of a bilingual Canada changed the face of schooling: It has become part of a good education to be proficient in another language. French immersion is popular – enrolment has climbed 40 per cent, nationally, over a decade. But over time, as parents look to give their children a competitive edge, French immersion has unintentionally created divisions in the public education system.

Across the country, French immersion programs have seen an increase in enrollment: British Columbia's enrollment has climbed 18 per cent over five years, and Alberta is up 12 per cent, according to the most recent figures obtained by the Canadian Parents for French, a non-profit group.

French immersion Grade 1 class at Tom Thomson Public School in Burlington, Ontario. Teacher: Ms. Debbie Evers.

French immersion Grade 1 class at Tom Thomson Public School in Burlington, Ontario. Teacher: Ms. Debbie Evers.

KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/for The Globe and Mail

Nowhere is problem more acute than where Ms. McIntosh lives, the Halton District School Board in southwestern Ontario, where close to a quarter of all elementary school children are enrolled in French immersion.

Principals are struggling to keep pace, searching for experienced French teachers to satisfy demand. Communities are in upheaval plagued by countless boundary reviews. Children are being kept out of their neighbourhood schools as the English-only program is phased out. Small, vocal groups of upset parents rally against plans to turn schools French-only. And the school board is in the midst of yet another consultation process on how to keep both the French and English programs viable.

Stuart Miller is only five months into his role as director of education at the Halton board. He says this is one of the most significant issues his schools face.
"As a public education board, it is incumbent on us to provide choice for parents. But when the choices start to impede our ability to provide programs for all kids … we have an absolute obligation to provide viable programs for all students," he says.

"We are, after all, an English-language board," Mr. Miller adds, "and if our core programs are being challenged, we have an obligation to try to alleviate that."

Some parents believe French immersion is more rigorous, Mr. Miller says, offering more of an intellectual challenge. It is, in that context, like a private enclave within the public system, with fewer students who have special learning needs, for example.

As a result, the program has become a preferred destination for children from richer, more educated families. According to research from the Toronto District School Board, children from less affluent homes are less likely to enroll (as are boys, in general).

This creates a waterfall effect: If the neighbour's children are signing up, you should too.

The result? The English stream, seen by some parents as inferior, is so gutted that in at least a dozen Halton elementary schools, there are Grade 1 classes with 15 students or fewer remaining in English.

Halton's hardest hit Grade 1 classes

SchoolsEnglishFrench immersion
Bruce T. Lindley1530
Charles R. Beaudoin1230
Orchard Park1648
Tom Thomson453
James W. Hill843
E.W. Foster860
Martin Street231
George Kennedy1484
Robert Little1536

Source: Halton District School Board

At Tom Thomson Public School, located in an established Burlington neighbourhood, 57 children are enrolled in Grade 1, and 53 of them are in the French immersion program, spread over three classrooms.

And the other four?

They are in the English program, an increasingly isolated island at the school, where English-stream students comprise only 14 per cent of the overall population.

It is not an ideal situation, because schools are not just about academics, but also social settings for children. That small group of English-stream children will most likely be in a split classroom – sharing space with students from a different grade – and continue to be with the same pupils throughout their elementary years.

Ms. McIntosh said that as that English cohort dwindles at Clarksdale, there's an added threat that her school, a two-minute walk from her house, could convert to French immersion only. If it did, and Ms. McIntosh ultimately chose the English stream for her daughter, the child could end up being bused to another school.

English stream students in split Grade 1 and 2 class at Tom Thomson Public School in Burlington, Ontario. Teacher: Ms Amanda Heilesen.

English stream students in split Grade 1 and 2 class at Tom Thomson Public School in Burlington, Ontario. Teacher: Ms Amanda Heilesen.

KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/for The Globe and Mail

Burlington mom Margo Shuttleworth understands that fear all too well. Her school, Pineland Public School, is in the process of transitioning to a single-track French-immersion-only school. She counts herself "lucky" because her two boys, Mac, 10, and Daniel, 8, are thriving in French immersion.

If they weren't, Ms. Shuttleworth said she does not know where her children would move. Others in her neighbourhood who want to send their youngsters to Pineland for the English-stream program are out of luck.

"I am not anti-French-immersion," she says. "What I am against is pulling community schools away from communities and busing kids in and now busing kids out."

The situation at Pineland and the public outcry to converting a dual-track school into a French immersion-only school forced Mr. Miller to try and get ahead of the problem. The board is asking parents to help it come up with a plan on how to keep both the English and French programs sustainable. What those changes could look like is unclear, but Mr. Miller is hoping to have something in place by September, 2017.

The board, meanwhile, has expanded its core French program, where students learn French as a subject. It previously started in Grade 4, but the board is expanding it to Grade 1 classes.

This won't solve the issue.

French immersion Grade 1 class at Tom Thomson Public School in Burlington, Ontario. Teacher: Ms. Debbie Evers.

French immersion Grade 1 students at Tom Thomson Public School in Burlington, Ontario. This class, taught by Ms. Debbie Evers, is one of three French immersion Grade 1 classrooms.

KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/for The Globe and Mail

Nearby, the Peel District School Board took drastic measures four years ago to limit the explosion in French immersion enrollment. The board struggled to find qualified French-speaking teachers to fill their classrooms and space had also been a problem at the growing school board. So Peel capped French immersion at 25 per cent of total Grade 1 enrolment, and now uses a lottery system when the number of students registered for French at a school exceeds the available spots.

Scott Moreash, associate director of instructional support services in Peel, acknowledges the decision was controversial. But he said that it was important move to keep the program thriving.

Jennifer Adams, director of education at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, echoes the sentiment. Her board recently approved a motion that will expose kindergarten students to a bilingual program, before having to make the big decision in Grade 1 (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; the Toronto District School Board offers French immersion in senior kindergarten).

"We don't know whether this will reduce the number of parents that are choosing [early French immersion] as a program pathway for their children. But what we do know is that it gives them two years to be making that decision as opposed to having to make it after only the JK year," Ms. Adams said.

Oakville mom Mary Robertson believes that the decision to join the program comes too soon in a child's life, even though evidence suggests that kids are little sponges and the earlier they learn a second language, the better. French immersion was offered to her daughter in Grade 1, and Ms. Robertson joined the march.

The French immersion class divide
Why French immersion should be in all schools – or none at all A Ontario public school teacher worries that French immersion is creating "educational elitism."

But then she started to notice changes: her daughter was getting upset easily; she was overwhelmed by homework; and she was not grasping the context of what she was learning. "It was just memorizing and going through the motions," Ms. Robertson says.

Ever since she pulled her daughter out of French immersion this fall, Ms. Robertson feels "a calm has come over the house." Her daughter is enjoying school – as much as a 10-year-old can.

"It was a hard decision," Ms. Robertson says. "I just didn't want to make the wrong decision."

Her son, now in Grade 1, is not in French immersion. She thought about giving him the same run at the program as her daughter. But he struggled in reading when he was in kindergarten, and he was finally gaining momentum. Ms. Robertson was afraid a French-immersion program would confuse him and set him back.

"For my kid, putting him in English, I think, it helped him thrive," she says. "I wonder if I would have this momentum of getting progressively better if I had him in French immersion. I didn't want to take a chance."

Follow me on Twitter: @calphonso

Why is French immersion so popular?

The programs provide all the benefits of a private school without the tuition costs - or so parents hope

Read Margaret Wente's column