As parents increasingly choose French immersion, new data from one Ontario school board show that the program is creating a two-tiered system, with new Canadians, children from low-income families and students with special needs overrepresented in English-program elementary schools.

The report from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board found that interest in French immersion has grown steadily over the past decade – 72 per cent of Grade 1 students enrolled in the program in the 2017-18 academic year.

Some school officials and educators are concerned that as more children flock into the French immersion program, an inequity in the system has emerged, where certain students are left behind in the English-language program.

“The whole point of public education, or a core piece of the mission, is to create equity. To the extent that we may be inadvertently creating the conditions to effectively socially sort demographic groups … that is sort of on us and we’ve got to look at that,” said trustee Rob Campbell, who requested the report after hearing concerns from families in the English program.

Ottawa is a special case because of its large bilingual population, making families more inclined to enroll their children in French immersion. But the data on the board’s French immersion and English programs provide a glimpse into what educators say is happening in many boards across the country.

A report from the Toronto District School Board last October found that the French immersion program tended to have a higher percentage of students who have parents with a very high socio-economic status, a university-level education and who were both born in Canada.

Nancy Wise, an educational consultant who specializes in French immersion and a former special education teacher, said it is concerning to see the inequality in the education system.

“A lot of people have preconceived notions of what kinds of students the [French immersion] program is for and those notions have not been supported by the research evidence,” she said, adding that students with special needs and those from low-income backgrounds can be successful with proper supports.

“I think a lot of times parents are discouraged perhaps because they believe certain myths about the program that have been dispelled by the research. So they shy away from enrolling their children.”

French immersion has grown in popularity among families who want to give their children a competitive edge or fluency in a second language. School districts are having to reconfigure classrooms and find qualified French teachers. The Vancouver school district has waiting lists for its French-immersion program. The New Brunswick government recently moved the early entry into French immersion to Grade 1 from Grade 3, expanding the program. Some school boards have used a lottery system or capped enrolment to contain exploding growth.

Meanwhile, the English program in many places has suffered from losing students, and split grades are not uncommon as a result, according to the report. It warned that “English programming cannot continue to be offered in the current fashion unless there is consideration of changes to ensure viability/sustainability.”

The report found that in the 2016-17 academic year, English-only schools had “a high proportion of the student body who reside in lower-income neighborhoods.” Further, English-only schools had more special-education classes: Of the 15 English-only schools, six had such special-ed classes, compared with only one out of 14 French-immersion only schools.

“Parental perceptions about [English stream] programming may be influenced by the number of specialized program classes in the school,” the report stated.

Among schools that offered only the English program (students study French as a subject), the number of English-as-a-second-language learners can be anywhere between 20 per cent to 50 per cent of the population, compared with schools focused on French immersion, where fewer than 10 per cent of students identify as English language learners, the report found. (About 16 per cent of students are identified as ELL across the board.)

Trustees were to discuss the report at a meeting on Tuesday night, but it was deferred to a later date.

French is taught in a variety of ways in Canadian schools, including French immersion as early as junior kindergarten and core French, where students learn the language as a standalone subject. In Ottawa, kindergarten students are exposed to a bilingual program, before families have to make a decision on French immersion in Grade 1. There is another entry point in Grade 4. The board has schools that offer only English or French immersion programs, and others that offer both in the same building.

Mr. Campbell said he hopes that the report will result in a wider discussion among trustees on how to change perceptions in the community and keep both the English and French immersion programs viable.

“I’m convinced that the standards, the grading, the teacher supports are as high quality in the English … program as they are in the various [French immersion] programs. My concern however is that we may be reaching – if we haven’t already reached – a reputational tipping point,” Mr. Campbell said.

Betty Gormley, executive director of the Canadian Parents for French Ontario, called on the Ottawa board to bring in an awareness campaign that “emphasizes the academic equivalence” of the French immersion and English programs. She said that all children, including newcomers and students with special needs, can thrive in either program when proper supports are in place.

“When parents know these facts, when French immersion is offered in all neighbourhoods throughout the school board and when parents are confident that special education needs will be provided, then [French immersion] enrolment in the neighbourhoods identified in the [report] will grow,” Ms. Gormley said.

The Globe and Mail, November 6, 2019