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SD8 under fire over French immersion

The Kootenay Lake School district is facing the wrath of dozens of parents, who are worried their children won't have a spot in next year's Grade 6 French immersion program at Trafalgar Middle School.
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Superintendent Jeff Jones talks with children enrolled in next year's Grade 6 French immersion program at Trafalgar. Nearly 90 children are registered for immersion

The Kootenay Lake School district is facing the wrath of dozens of parents, who are worried their children won't have a spot in next year's Grade 6 French immersion program at Trafalgar Middle School.

Almost 90 children are registered for immersion, but enrolment is normally capped at 60 students, enough to make up exactly two classes.

But a dozen parents who showed up to SD8's Wednesday morning budget meeting— and another dozen, who joined them at the regular board meeting that night — say an exception should be made and a third class of French immersion should be added for next year.

"We just feel we don't want 26 people left off the program," parent Trish Dehnel told the Star. "We want us all to be in French immersion."

Parents say they've gotten spotty and inconsistent information from the board so far. Some have been told their children have secured a spot in next year's program, others have phoned the district only to be told the information isn't being given out. Many say they were told there was no need to hurry to register their children, and then learned the program was already over subscribed.

While adding a third class appears to be the most popular option among parents, officials at SD8 say doing so isn't as easy as it sounds.

District human resources manager Brian DeBiasio says the immersion program has a high attrition rate, with 11 to 15 students dropping out of the program each year. That can leave the board with an odd number of students, who require three French classes, but can't fill them — as well as a new influx of English students who may require a new class of their own.

The district also isn't allowed to have more than three special needs students in any class of 30, and DeBiasio says adding a third class of French Immersion students (rather than another class in English) makes spreading those students out more complicated.

Superintendent Jeff Jones told parents there's also the question of whether or not all the children signed up for the French program are there because they themselves are interested in learning a second language.

"How many people on this list are there because of French immersion, and how many are there because they're seeking alternatives, any alternatives?" he asked.

While the district had considered vetting each registered student so only those with an interest in French are actually admitted to the program, it was written off as too time-consuming.

The board has offered three alternative options for dealing with the over registration: choosing students by lottery, having all interested parents re-register on one day, or giving preference to those students that registered first.

But Bruce Hardy says none of those solutions sit well with parents.

"You're either going to have 26 parents pissed off at you, or 60 parents pissed off at you, or all of the parents pissed off at you," he told the board, adding afterward that be believes the district needs to sit down with the parents of all the registered students (who may not all be aware of the registration issue) before any decision is made.

"Bring those facts and that data to us so we can then support it," he said. "What we've been offered is just these three options that are not options in our opinion."

Other parents say if their children don't have a spot in the immersion program they'll look at giving up on SD8 altogether.

"If we don't have that third class, there will be parents who will put their kids into the French school here, if they can be convinced to add a sixth year," says Hardy. "Or they'll go to homeschooling. And as a result the school district will suffer."

At the moment, the district hasn't decided on a timeline for making its decision. Senior staffers have promised to review parent arguments Monday, before deciding on the next step in the process.