In the Education field there are always certain debates that are always on going and that never seem to go away. And now in Ontario as we face more and more cuts from the Ford Conservatives, some of these conversations are coming up, but in a different context. It was with that in mind that I saw a story come through my Twitter feed about one of these conversations, one that I think deserves some discussion:

The debate around French Immersion programs is one that has been going on ever since they were started. Some of those debates revolve around teaching French at all, which I believe are debates not worthy of our time. But as French Immersion programs have become more and more successful, more and more families have tried to enroll their kids into them. That’s led to some serious pressure on these schools, including trying to find enough qualified teachers to teach those classes.

But the debate that’s been happening more and more has been about French Immersion programs, streaming and two-tiered education. Or at least, that’s how the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board is looking at it now. For me, this is a debate that is deeply personal. Not only am I a product of a great French Immersion program, I was blessed to get to teach in one as well when I was still in the classroom. My French Immersion education has been crucial to what I have been able to achieve in my life. I never would have had the chances to work in government or in politics without being fluently bilingual and that program opened so many doors to me in so many ways. So you’re not going to find a bigger defender of French Immersion programs than me.

Despite my support for the program though, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t reasons to be looking at real issues with the program. French Immersion programs do have a problem, one that has inadvertently created situations that force kids with help out of the program simply because of a lack of resources. In the CBC Ottawa story that is linked there, you can see examples of parents fighting to get their kids the help they need within the program. That is a situation I have lived through, but on the other side.

I have sat in meetings with parents and their students, having to tell them that if they want their child to pass into the next grade, they will need to go into an English program. And the reason for that? Most school boards don’t have funding to pay for educational assistants who speak French in French Immersion programs. So if your child has a special need or is on an Individual Education Plan (IEP), that means that the only place where they can get classroom supports is in the English system. Just because those children have special needs does not mean that they cannot success and thrive in a French Immersion program if supported; in fact, studies show time and again that special needs is no barrier to learning in a second language. Yet the province doesn’t fund these assistants for French Immersion programs, essentially forcing them to become streamed, forcing students out of them if they need help.

And when I speak of a child’s ability to thrive in a French Immersion program with special needs, I also speak from first-hand experience. I had some of those issues and I was able to succeed in French Immersion. It wasn’t easy, but I somehow made it happen, and to this day I’m so glad that I had that chance. Having a learning difficulty does not affect someone’s intelligence or capacity for learning, yet the current system for assistance for French Immersion doesn’t act as if that’s a reality. So if you want to point to improvements to French Immersion programs, you can start right there. If the province funded French-speaking EA’s for French Immersion schools, that would go a long way to stopping this streaming issue that does happen.

The question remaining though will be if this study actually looks at that, or if this turns into chance to pick on French Immersion programs and shutting them down. I’m hopeful that this study will be genuine and will really look at ways of improving French Immersion programs, not shut them down. This is a study that many in education across the country will follow the results of. So I hope that the good folks of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board will give this issue the examination that it deserves, in the spirit of ensuring that French Immersion programs are around for a long time.

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