Erin McCall reads a French book with her daughter Elle Miller at their home in South Surrey. McCall wants to enrol Elle in a French immersion school

Surrey needs French immersion fix: Parent

Finding school space and qualified teachers a challenge, education board chair says.

She began dialing as soon as the phone lines opened at 5 p.m. on Jan. 15.

In fact, Erin McCall and her friend were hitting redial on three separate phones – a landline and two cellphones – simultaneously, hoping someone on the other end of the Surrey School District’s “telephone lottery” for French immersion registration would pick up.

Having graduated from a French immersion (FI) program herself, there was no doubt McCall wanted her daughter, Elle, to start kindergarten in the specialized language program this fall.

“Why not?” she said when asked why she wanted Elle in FI. “If your child has the chance to learn one of Canada’s other official languages, why wouldn’t you do it? It’s a great benefit in terms of the job market, the learning outcomes studies have show math and sciences are a lot stronger for kids in French immersion. Why not give them that extra advantage?”

Finally, after 40 minutes on the phone and more than 800 dial attempts, instead of the usual busy signal, one of the phones connected. McCall was then on hold another 20 minutes and when someone answered, she was number 192 in line. Like everyone before and after her, she was asked to give her first and second choice of the six Surrey elementary schools that offer early (kindergarten or Grade 1) French immersion.

She gave her picks – Laronde Elementary and Peace Arch Elementary – but Elle didn’t get into either. (Callers don’t have the opportunity to give a third choice). Elle currently stands 12th on the wait list at Laronde, and 18th at Peace Arch.

McCall has been told chances are slim her daughter will make her way to the top of either list.

“It’s frustrating,” says the mom of two. “It’s really not a lottery at all, because a lot of parents have these telephone parties where they can stack the deck and the more people you know with cellphones, the more calls you can make.”

The fight for French immersion spaces is not a new problem or one that’s particularly unique to Surrey. In many districts, just as it used to be in Surrey, parents are still forced to camp out overnight in hopes of securing a French immersion space. McCall says at least with that system, you know exactly where you stand. She’s had to call the individual schools to know where her daughter is on the wait lists.

There are currently about 3,300 students in French immersion in Surrey – about five per cent of the district’s total enrolment.

Canadian Parents For French says while Surrey has demonstrated strong leadership when it comes to French language education, the district needs to ensure families have an equal opportunity to participate.

McCall agrees, and argues that not only should the registration system be more transparent, but Surrey should shift resources to accommodate parent choice.

“We’re not asking for extra space or extra resources,” she says. “These kids are going to get resources whether they’re in English track or French, it’s just a matter of accommodating and so far nothing is being done.”

But Shawn Wilson, chair of the Surrey Board of Education and representative on the French immersion advisory committee, says it’s not as simple as it sounds because of this district’s rapid growth.

One of the two biggest issues to expanding FI is school space, he says, as the majority of the district’s schools are already busting at the seams.

“It’s a real dilemma. If you’ve got a school in a catchment area and it’s over-capacity with portables, how do you make spaces available for French immersion when you’re required to ensure kids in the catchment area get a space?

“It starts to cause real problems and concerns for people who don’t want to be part of French immersion and wonder why you put a choice program in a school that’s already overcrowded.”

There are currently six early FI locations (Riverdale, Simon Cunningham, Martha Currie, Laronde, Peace Arch and Woodward Hill Elementary schools), five late (Grade 6) entry schools (K.B. Woodward, Sunrise Ridge, Crescent Park, Henry Bose and Jessie Lee) and four secondary programs (Kwantlen Park, Lord Tweedsmuir, Earl Marriott and Panorama Ridge). Many of those schools already have portables due to overcrowding.

“Wherever and whenever we can, we make French immersion a priority,” says Wilson.

The other significant problem, he says, is the shortage of qualified French immersion teachers.

“As it is, some days, we don’t have TOCs (substitutes) available to cover for French immersion teachers,” Wilson says, noting the district is always working to entice new teachers to take French training because they’ll get a job almost immediately.

The board recently asked staff to do a core review of its choice programs, including French immersion, to examine how registration can be improved, as well as how to better sustain programs and meet demand.

But McCall, who isn’t sure where her daughter will be going to school in September, wants less analyzing and more action.

“If you’re going to say ‘we can’t do anything’ or ‘we have to study this for a year,’ that’s not good enough. That’s not an answer to me.”

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