The Sooke School District hasn’t had to resort to drastic measures to find qualified French immersion teachers. But that could change as the program continues to grow on the West Shore and across B.C.
“It’s the fastest-growing program in our district,” said Sooke School District superintendent Jim Cambridge.
Roughly 1,300 students – or more than 12 per cent – of SD62’s student body is comprised of French immersion pupils. The district has six schools that offer the program, with John Stubbs solely hosting French-immersion pupils.
That translates to roughly 75 French-immersion teachers currently being employed by the district. Cambridge estimated that number grows about five per cent every year and has grown about 25 per cent in the last five years.
Cendra Beaton, president of the Canadian Parents for French Sooke District Chapter, said, “we have a very fortunate situation where the district doesn’t have a cap on our (French immersion) program.”
However, she is concerned that may change as the program grows. Of this school year’s enrolment numbers, 45 per cent of French immersion students are in Kindergarten to Grade 3.
“As they go up in grades we’re going to need teachers to support that … It shows you the importance of getting the teachers we need right now.”
Next year’s numbers are looking to continue that trend. Beaton said after only two days of early French immersion registration, 173 new students had registered for Kindergarten and more than 30 had registered for late immersion.
“I’m really hoping we have a district that continues to support all kids that choose French immersion,” she said.
With class sizes yet to be determined after the recent court ruling, Beaton added, “it’s hard to determine how many teachers we’ll need next year.”
Based on the early enrolment numbers, she predicted John Stubbs alone could see up to five classes of Kindergarten French immersion next year, if every student is accepted into the program and registration continues at the same pace. “That’s a huge need for staff in just one school.”
But a shortage of French immersion teachers isn’t a new concern for the local district. “It’s been our experience for the last five years … But all teachers are in demand,” Cambridge said. “Right now we’re okay (but) we’ve had troubles in the past.”
He noted it can be especially difficult to find teachers with special skill sets such as special education or counselling, and high school teachers with specific disciplines.
But it’s not just tough to find French immersion teachers. “It’s for all of our teachers right now,” he noted. “We just hired 22 teachers from our on-call list.”
To make sure they have enough teachers and don’t come up short at any point in the year, Cambridge said the district has been actively recruiting and regularly updates its on-call pool. While there was a time when they did interviews once or twice a year for on-call teachers, now, he said, “we do them virtually every week.”
But Beaton said high school students also need to be targeted and made aware of the options and scholarships available if they wish to pursue a career teaching French immersion. “We need to build that awareness,” she said.
With increasing demand for French immersion teachers across the country, some parent groups have voiced concerns about under-qualified teachers finding positions above their expertise level.
“We haven’t had that problem. We’ve set a pretty high bar for all of our teachers … (and) we haven’t had to lower our bar,” Cambridge said, adding it helps that Victoria and the south Island are very attractive places to live.
It was a sentiment echoed by Beaton. “It’s a skill to be able to speak French, it’s another to be able to teach French as a second language,” she said.
In recognition of that, she noted French immersion teachers in the district go through an international standard of testing, which includes three oral tests and a written component. Applicants’ scores determine what grades they can teach.
Beaton added the district’s positive environment and the supports offered are also attracting teachers to the area. “We have some advantages, but it’s still going to be a challenge,” she said.