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French Immersion program threatened

More information sessions added for parents and students

The French Immersion program at Spring Creek Community School is on the verge of being cancelled due to low enrolment.

Students that enroled last year will continue through Grade 6 and Grade 7 to finish the program, but the program will be phased out for Grade 5 or Grade 6 students that are entering the program.

That's a concern for many parents who are hoping to enrol their children this year and in the future.

Melissa Deally is safe so far, her daughter completed the Grade 5 program this year and will move on to Grade 6, but she is concerned that the experience won't be available to other children in the future.

"I feel very strong about it as my daughter... has had a great year at school, and learned so much independence in her school work as I can't help her - I don't have a word of French," said Deally. "She's really been challenged, and it's wonderful to see her be able to speak, read and write in another language. These three years of French Immersion will give her a sound basis to carry the language through high school and later on into whatever career she decides to pursue."

Deally also has a daughter in Grade 1, and she is concerned that the program won't be around in four years.

"I want her to have the same opportunities my older daughter has, but without the 'on again, off again status' parents have had to endure the last two years. It's tough on everyone not knowing whether the program will go ahead.

"In Squamish and other communities parents line up in the wee hours of the morning to enroll their children into French Immersion, and yet in Whistler we can't even find the minimum 22 children to register in the two and a half months since registration started."

Gerry Galloway, principal at Spring Creek Community School, said 15 students are currently enroled, seven fewer than the 22 required by the Sea to Sky School District for the program to run. Last year the program just met that 22-student requirement after a drive for students that went into June.

She has not given up, and says the school has added more information sessions for parents and students.

"We have had information sessions at each school (Spring Creek and Myrtle Philip), and one parent information session here," Galloway said. "We are planning to have another on May 21 at 7 o'clock where we're hoping to have the (Sea to Sky School Board) superintendent and director of French Immersion, as well as some former students that will talk about their experiences.

"I think there's a lack of awareness on the part of parents that this program is available... and we're trying to get as much information out as we can."

Galloway also allowed that demographics could be playing a role in low registration. Families with one French parent or where French is spoken in the home already have the option of sending their children to L'Ecole La Passerelle. Those students would have been natural candidates for French Immersion. As well, as a small school the number of kids in each grade can fluctuate from year to year.

Galloway emphasized that French Immersion is a district program, and that it's not a magnet program for Spring Creek. She also wanted to get the point across that a school bus is available for families living in the north end of town that are concerned about the commute.

The program was introduced in September 2005, after years of lobbying the school district to bring French Immersion to town. Most Whistler parents favoured early immersion for students in Kindergarten through Grade 3, but for logistical reasons the district only approved a late immersion program for students from Grade 5 to 7.

Galloway would like the program to continue.

"The students get more than a second language, they learn study habits, and independence as students of French Immersion," she said. "There's also an attitude of diversity, getting kids to try something new, and we have so many testimonials from students that have gone on to private school who continued French Immersion, or continued to study French through high school."

Sharon Broach, principal of Myrtle Philip, says their school supports the French Immersion program so much that they've introduced French classes for Grade 4 students, one year earlier than mandated by the province. There were concerns from parents that the student presentations took place before the parent presentations, but she says the Parent Advisory Council supports the program as well.

"I'm sure demographics come into play with it, as well as all the other activities children are involved in and we respect that it's a family decision, but we are very supportive of French Immersion," she said. "You do need a critical mass of students to draw from, so as a small community that can make it a challenge."

To register, students must be in Grade 4, although there is a top-up program that will accept Grade 5 students that are going into Grade 6 next year.