Parents pack the SD54 board office during last May 2’s committee meeting. (Chris Gareau photo)

Smithers council concerned with state of French Immersion

Council let the school district know it’s concerned so many kids can’t get into French Immersion.

Read more on the state of French Immersion enrolment in the May 10 edition of The Interior News, and more on council’s decision in the May 17 edition.

Smithers council passed a motion Tuesday in support of the French Immersion program at Muheim Elementary

This was after a delegation of parents concerned their kids cannot get into the Kindergarten class made the case it has a big impact on getting people to move and live in Smithers.

A copy of the motion, rather than hashing out a letter, was sent to Bulkley Valley School District 54:

That a letter be sent to the school district recognizing the value of French Immersion to Smithers. Programs such as French Immersion attract families to the community. Council’s concerned about cuts being considered by the board and offer to work with the board to do what we can to keep this program healthy and whole.

Only Coun. Frank Wray was opposed to the motion because the decision is not in the Town of Smithers’ jurisdiction, and therefore he felt it inappropriate for council to get involved. He also mentioned council only having one side of the story, having not heard the school board and administration’s explanation.

An amendment proposed by Coun. Phil Brienesse was defeated:

That we respectfully request that they reinstate the ninth division of the French Immersion program and work to accommodate those families on the wait list.

The amendment was defeated with councillors Gladys Attril, Bill Goodacre, Shelley Browne, and Wray opposed.

There is a long wait list for Muheim Memorial Elementary’s French Immersion Kindergarten next year, and parents told school board trustees on May 2 another class should be a priority.

The Bulkley Valley School District 54 (SD54) board room was standing room only during last week’s finance committee meeting. Parents were there to express frustration at the inability to get 14 of their kids enrolled. Some said that wait list would be even longer if other parents thought their kids could get in.

The policy committee will also be looking at the District’s setting a priority on kids who already have siblings enrolled in French Immersion. A statistically surprising 19 of 24 spaces are taken up by siblings in the Kindergarten class of 2017-18.

The last review on that policy was over 20 years ago, according to assistant superintendent Mike McDiarmid. The policy committee has put the review out for public feedback.

Complicating things even further was the court decision that set the rules on class size back to the teachers’ collective agreement of 2001. That dropped the number of students that can be enrolled from 28 to 24, making for awkward phone calls to four children’s parents.

Dr. Trevor Lake, a local dentist, was representing Smithers Parents for French.

“Programs like this are key when you’re trying to attract … and retain new families in our community. A lot of people look at things like this,” Lake told trustees during an audience comment period at the end of the meeting.

“And attracting and retaining those new families is key to the long-term vitality of our community.”

Administration stressed the goal of maintaining the program, but Lake said even that was not being done.

“The reality is there was a division that was cut a year ago, so it went from nine to eight. Then this year’s enrolment dropped from 28 to 24. So four — not a huge number — but that’s a 15 per cent decrease in the enrolment, which is quite large,” said Lake.

“If that continues and trickles on down, that’s a big cut to the program.”

SD54 superintendent Chris van der Mark said while the current eight French Immersion divisions is not set in stone, planning long-term was reliant on registration trends over several years.

“If you look at the enrolment on a given year, this is clearly an anomaly. On a given year that might be a wait list of two and three, often they even get in,” he said.

But other considerations also have to be made when deciding where resources go, according to van der Mark.

“It’s important to understand, irrespective of demand, we have to consider the demand in context to other things across the District, particularly when you’re dealing with programs of choice and essentially electives,” he said.

There is some supplemental provincial money for French Immersion, but a balance has to be made, according to van der Mark.

“The argument is that we should be expanding it further, that’s what people are asking. And if we do that, without question … someone else isn’t getting something somewhere else,” he said.

He stressed that the program is being maintained with 190-192 students, up over 16 per cent from five years ago when there were about 166 enrolled, but agreed there must be a better way to enrol kids.

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