Twin Rivers Elementary in Castlegar will soon be teaching kindergarten in three different languages.
At Monday’s school board meeting in Trail, assistant superintendent Bill Ford revealed a plan to launch a pilot project — starting French immersion in kindergarten.
Currently, School District 20 (SD 20) offers French immersion to students in Grade 6 and up, along with a full Russian teaching program, but Ford is attempting to get a full French kindergarten to Grade 12 plan started.
Only 22 spaces are available for students in the pilot, and they will be chosen by lottery. The immersion program is only slated to run for two years as a test period and comes in response to parent requests.
“We are getting lots of local parent demand asking for early French immersion,” said Ford. “We know that to learn a second language and optimize language learning, kids need to be young. We’re not taking advantage of that currently. This is not a new conversation.”
When the discussion began about the future program, new trustee Teri Ferworn was concerned about how the school district would pay for the pilot.
“I want to start with saying that I am all about second language acquisition,” she said. “My concern, I guess, is funding. Are we going to be getting funding for just the pilot project and will the board have to sustain it?”
The pilot project won’t end up costing the school board very much, if anything, to run. It might actually allow more money to be spent in other areas.
“As long as students are enrolled, we will get the funding,” said Ford. “If the program was dissolved after two years, then we would lose the French funding. We get regular funding and then the federal French funding comes per student to the school district. It actually frees up the funding that we use right now to supplement teaching.”
Janelle Ellis, a Castlegar resident and mother of a 3-year-old in Russian pre-school, is fully supportive of the launch and plans on signing her child up as soon as she can. If not for French, then for Russian.
“My daughter is in Russian pre-school, and with the program coming about I will be enrolling her in French and it is because I speak French,” she said. “If my daughter doesn’t get picked for the French, I will put her in Russian. I have even convinced five of my friends to sign their kids up.”
Immersion student transportation to and from Twin Rivers Elementary was addressed as well. The program is open to all students in SD 20, from Fruitvale to Robson, but as of now, no extra bus routes will be added to accommodate the pilot.
“The parents who register their children for the early French immersion, they would have to arrange to get their children to the school,” said trustee Toni Driutti.
Ford added that if the program takes off, the situation may change.
“We would work with the transportation department to look at existing routes and see what we could do to support that,” he said.
Trustee Mickey Kinakin is firmly against the two-year pilot program, citing, among other things, concerns about current programs losing momentum and registered students.
“The board is going to go down a rabbit hole if they pass this,” he said. “It is going to destroy other programs. I want a complete plan or I just can’t support this. I just can’t. You can have a French program or a Russian program, not both.”
Ford reassured Kinakin that the French program won’t pose a threat to the existing systems in place.
“We already run a French immersion program, we are just going to be starting it earlier,” he said. “The reason that we are doing a two-year pilot is that we aren’t sure that an early immersion program will fly in the district. There are enough kindergarten students to offer a Russian kindergarten, as we have been doing, and a French kindergarten. There does not need to be a competition between the two languages being offered.”
After an intense and lengthy question period and discussion, the board passed a motion to put the French immersion program into practice, at least for the two-year pilot. After those two years, the board will revisit the idea to see if there is enough interest to merge the early immersion students with the current Grade 6 to 12 French program.
Sign up for the pilot program coincides with SD 20’s kindergarten registration which runs from Feb. 10 to 13.
For more information on enrolment or details of the program, call Ford at 250-368-2230.