French immersion review suggests ‘bold’ changes

Moving all Grades 6 and 7 French immersion students into Nanaimo District Secondary School could ease overcrowding.

Moving all Grades 6 and 7 French immersion students into Nanaimo District Secondary School could ease overcrowding in immersion elementary schools.

The move is one suggestion made by a team of consultants.

Last year, trustees ordered a review of French immersion programs with the goals of: identifying ways the district can continue to provide high quality programs that meet the needs of students and parents; identifying strategies to address overcrowding at French immersion elementary schools; and to inform the ongoing refinement of the facilities plan.

The review, prepared by a team of three consultants, was presented to trustees at a public meeting last week. The board referred it to development of the district’s strategic educational plan.

District staff, who are developing the plan, have not set a timeline as to when that work will be finished.

The district offers French immersion at four elementary schools – Hammond Bay, Quarterway, Pauline Haarer and Davis Road in Ladysmith – and Nanaimo District Secondary School.  All four elementary students are over capacity, with Davis Road operating at more than 200 per cent capacity and Hammond Bay at more than 150 per cent capacity.

The review noted that the programs sometimes have smaller classes than the regular English program, especially at the secondary level, and fewer than 50 per cent of students who enrol in the early French immersion program carry through to graduation.

And while the French elementary schools are overcrowded, there is excess capacity at the secondary level.

Moving Grades 6 and 7 French immersion students into what the report called a “middle school” at NDSS and shifting some programs currently at NDSS to other facilities is the report’s recommended option for dealing with both problems.

The option also calls for making Ladysmith Secondary School a Grades 6-12 school and moving the French immersion program from Davis Road to Ladysmith Primary, which would be reconfigured into a K-5 elementary school.

Of the three other options explored by the consultants, two involve closing Pauline Haarer and moving students to the closed Dufferin Crescent school site. A third involves setting limits on early French immersion intake and expanding the gym at Hammond Bay.

The report states that option 4, while a “bold” recommendation, is the preferred choice because it does not require a significant capital investment, helps relieve the district’s over/under capacity issues, and could allow for growth in the French immersion program. Elementary facilities are currently above capacity already and 39 students were wait-listed for the program this fall, although some of these students may have been on more than one wait list.

The consultants recommend: growing the French immersion program by introducing late French immersion beginning in Grade 6; monitoring attrition through exit interviews; centralizing registration and eliminating preferential treatment for siblings; eliminating out-of-district registrations unless there is surplus capacity; and offering a user-pay transportation service to secondary students and students in Grades 6 and 7 if option 4 is adopted.

Sharon Welch, school board vice-chairwoman, said the French program advisory committee was already looking at the idea of a French middle school in a secondary school before this report came out.

“The reality is we’ve got extra space at the secondary level and not enough space at the elementary level,” she said.

Jamie Brennan, school board chairman, said he’s concerned about the loss of a leadership group at the elementary level, as Grades 6 and 7 students often serve as mentors and role models for the younger students.

“We’ve got a lot to ponder,” he said. “I’m not for it or against it right now.”


French immersion by the #’s

u nine per cent of students in Nanaimo school district are in the French immersion program, compared with five per cent 20 years ago

u 1,200 + students are enrolled in French immersion programs in Nanaimo, above the provincial average

u John Barsby Secondary School, the secondary school with the most empty desks, is less than 70 per cent full

u Nanaimo District Secondary School, the second lowest secondary, is using 75 per cent of its capacity

u By 2020, Davis Road is expected to reach 260 per cent of its capacity and Hammond Bay will be at above 160 per cent capacity utilization