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Lottery may decide who gets into French immersion

Sindy Preger reads French books to her 4-year-old twin boys Levi and Reuben.

JENNIFER ROBERTS/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

French immersion has become so popular in Peel Region schools that trustees are considering enrolment caps and a lottery to determine which students get into the program, a prospect that has outraged parents.

Faced with growing pressure to meet the staffing and space demands of the ballooning program, trustees will consider capping the proportion of Grade 1 students in French immersion at current levels – about 25 per cent – at a Peel District School Board meeting late Tuesday. The cap would mean that if demand continues to increase – as it has consistently over the last decade – a draw would decide at random who's in and who's out of the program.

"It just seems so completely ludicrous to make that type of decision based on drawing someone's name," said Nancy Ripton, a Mississauga-based mother of three.

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Her oldest son could be among the first children placed in the lottery. He's in senior kindergarten now, and she hopes to enroll him in Grade 1 French immersion next fall.

Parents were blindsided by the concept of a lottery, which was recommended in a board report made public just two weeks ago, said Rima Koleilat, president of the Mississauga West chapter of Canadian Parents for French.

"More and more people are finding out about this and they're angry," Ms. Koleilat said.

They're questioning whether the board has sufficiently considered its options, and some parents are considering moving their children to the Catholic system, she said.

They may be surprised to learn that their separate school board, Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, already uses a lottery system.

Dufferin-Peel, like virtually every school board in the GTA, is struggling to meet demand for French immersion and draws names to cope with demand. It also uses a lottery for several other popular programs, including its all-girls high school and full-day kindergarten.

"It's been a fair way to deal with demand," said Bruce Campbell, a spokesman for the board. "We find it works well for us."

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In 2001, just 9.4 per cent of Grade 1 students at Peel were enrolled in the program, but the promise of better employment prospects and long-term cognitive benefits have made French immersion increasingly popular with parents. Enrolment this school year has climbed to 25.4 per cent.

"Parents are very, very supportive of this program because they believe that in a bilingual country this will give their children a very strong advantage," said Shirley Ann Teal, lead superintendent on Peel's French immersion review committee. "The problem is not only that we need more teachers, but we need more space."

Peel's problems are exacerbated by the fact that it is one of the few school boards in Ontario that is growing: The student population climbs by about 1 per cent a year. Although space is an issue at Peel, staffing is the biggest problem there and across the province.

The Halton District School Board has attempted to address this issue by appointing a staff member to recruit French-speaking teachers.

That is among the recommendations that Peel trustees will consider Tuesday. They will also consider reducing the proportion of the day that Grade 1 students spend in French-language instruction from 85 to 50 per cent. This will make it easier to find substitute teachers to fill in when a French-speaking teacher is sick or engaged in preparatory work outside the classroom, according to Ms. Teal.

Ms. Ripton doesn't feel the committee was creative enough in the options it considered. She would like to see the board work harder to meet demand, grandfather those with older siblings, and consider which students are best-suited for the program.

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She has written about the issue on her parenting blog, and has started a petition, which has accumulated over 700 signatures to submit to the Peel board.

"They need to exhaust other resources before they say there aren't enough French teachers," she said.

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