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French immersion continues to be a popular choice

Ryder Wakefield, 7, has just started Grade 2 at John Stubbs Memorial in Colwood. He was one of roughly 1,200 students in the Sooke school district enrolled in French immersion during the last school year.  - Katherine Engqvist/News Gazette staff
Ryder Wakefield, 7, has just started Grade 2 at John Stubbs Memorial in Colwood. He was one of roughly 1,200 students in the Sooke school district enrolled in French immersion during the last school year.
— image credit: Katherine Engqvist/News Gazette staff

Parlez-vous français?

It's a phrase many children are on track to answer fluently in Canada's other official language as French immersion programs continue to attract an increasing number of students.

"That's the thing I like about the Sooke school district, the schools are working really hard to offer choices for students," said Stephanie Hedley-Smith, École John Stubbs Memorial principal.

She noted that some of the growth in French immersion could be attributed to the wonderful public school programs being offered – especially in the Sooke district – and that many parents are getting past a common misconception that French immersion is an elite program meant for gifted students. "It's just another great choice for parents and kids too," she said.

Provincewide, French immersion enrolment has increased for 18 consecutive years. In 2015-16, more than 52,500 students were enrolled, which translates to roughly 9.5 per cent of the student population in B.C. The Sooke School District saw more than 1,200 students enrolled last year, or more than 12 per cent of the entire student body. Numbers for this school have yet to be finalized.

The district has seen steady growth since the 2004-05 school year, according to Canadian Parents for French, British Columbia and Yukon Branch. That year there were 423 students enrolled, a number that ballooned to more than 700 in 2009-10 and climbed over 1,000 for the 2013-14 school year.

"French immersion is just a popular choice in programming because of all of the benefits of being bilingual," said Vivian Collyer, SD62 district principal of curriculum and programs. "It helps you be really successful across the board … (and) also improves your skills in the English language as well."

She added that being bilingual helps students when they enter the workforce, tending to see them paid more. "It gives you increased opportunities.”

The growth in French immersion in SD62 could partly be due to the fact the district doesn’t have a ceiling on the numbers, Collyer said, unlike some districts in the province. "As the program grows we let more children in," she said.

Belmont secondary,  École John Stubbs Memorial and Millstream elementary in the West Shore section of the district, and Edward Milne Community School, Journey middle school and Poirier elementary in Sooke offer French immersion.

Looking at the elementary schools, where many students start on the French immersion track, Collyer said there are no plans at this time to expand to other schools, but the district will continue to monitor the demand. "Right now it seems to be working well at the three elementary schools," she added.

Unlike the other two (elementary) schools, École John Stubbs Memorial is in its second year of straight French immersion and offers both early and late immersion programs. "It's a pretty amazing opportunity for south Vancouver Island," noted Hedley-Smith. The students have "embraced it completely, they're very committed." She said students will speak French in the hallways, on the playground and even if they're having a tough time.

"We want to make French immersion available to all students and help support them," she said. Both those students with special learning needs and those that learn in a more traditional way are fully immersed in the language, she added.

Students in the early immersion program start in Kindergarten or Grade 1. Students in late immersion start in Grade 6 or 7 and by Grade 8 are expected to be on track with the early immersion students.

Hedley-Smith had an opportunity last week to speak with some of the late immersion students about their reasons for entering the program. "Their answers were so interesting," she said. "Some just really wanted to learn French." Others wanted the challenge of learning a new language or had a desire to travel, while a number of students were looking to learn a third language.

Collyer also noted some of their success could be credited to the relationship they have with parents. "We collaborate with the parent community … We do a lot of planning with them and a lot of cultural events," she said.

While some families in the program have some connection with Quebec or have at least one parent that speaks French, Collyer said, "most frequently I think it's parents that are both English-speaking."

katie@goldstreamgazette.com

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