Parents lobbying for an early French immersion (EFI) program in the Chilliwack school district were undaunted by a 38-page, 13,000-word feasibility study that outlined all of the challenges implementing such a program would create.
The report was presented to the Chilliwack school board at the meeting Tuesday night and outlined a litany of obstacles like increased staffing costs, lack of free school space, difficulty recruiting and retaining qualified bilingual staff, challenges with meshing a new EFI program with the district's existing late immersion program and the need for new application/registration policies.
"I don't think there's anybody around this table or anybody on senior staff or anybody that I talk to in any of my interviews that did not support the idea of French immersion or any program of choice that offers students another option or another possibility," said Nancy Brennan, the outside consultant hired to prepare the report. "But what's philosophically good and what's physically possible are two different things."
But parents at the meeting were confident all the obstacles laid out by Brennan could be overcome if there was enough will in the district office and on the board.
"If the other school districts have it, clearly I don't think it would be that hard," said Jocelyn Thomas, president of the Chilliwack chapter of Canadian Parents for French, a group local parents formed in October to show support for EFI in Chilliwack.
"Looking to the other school districts and how they make it work, in terms of their costs and that, could be a good standard for Chilliwack. Look to the other districts; see how they make it work. Figure out how we can make it work here."
Local parents have long pointed out School District No. 33 is the only school district of its size in the province without early French immersion, and that many much smaller districts offer EFI.
"Every other district that has it in the Lower Mainland, they don't have room for more French immersion because there's such a high demand for it," she said.
A community survey conducted for the study garnered 377 responses in just two weeks right before the Christmas break and showed "overwhelmingly" (82.1 per cent) that respondents wanted EFI in Chilliwack.
But Brennan warned parent support can dwindle once school districts start making concrete decisions, like where to house programs.
The Okanagan-Skaha district, for example, had to scuttle its EFI program before it began in 2005 because parental interest dropped off before the school year even began.
"Some believe that the drop in interest came about as a result of the school that was selected to be the site for the EFI program," wrote Brennan in her report.
But Travis Forstbauer, a parent who's been pushing for EFI for his kids for well over a year, said that won't happen here.
"We're confident that we have shown our community support, we've shown our commitment, started the CPF Chilliwack Chapter to support this program and to maintain it," he told the Times after the presentation.
Talking "as parents," two Chilliwack Teachers' Association executives also threw their support behind the program at the meeting.
"I would have loved the opportunity for my kids, and I still have two years for one to get into it," president Clint Johnston told the board.
First vice-president Laurie Lena-rdon, meanwhile, urged trustees to "think outside the box" and find a way to make the program work.
"I know right now for you to find place for French immersion is very difficult, but it is a program my children have used in their work and in life."
Lenardon said she couldn't move to Chilliwack when she started teaching here because her kids had already started in early French immersion, so she moved to Abbotsford.
Forstbauer argues increased costs for an EFI program would at least be partly offset by an increase in student enrolment because families-like Lenardon's-wouldn't hesitate to move to Chilliwack and other families would keep their kids in School District No. 33 instead of sending them to other districts for EFI.
"Not to look at students as dollars and cents, but that is resources going to other districts," he said.
The school board has voted to mull over Brennan's report and refer it to staff for recommendations.
If the board were to approve the program, Brennan's first recommendation is for a September 2014 start date with at least one kindergarten and one Grade 1 class.
- See the full report at www.sd33.bc.ca.
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