In an effort to contain exploding growth in its French immersion program, a school board in Southern Ontario will consider making parents take an extra year to decide if it’s the right fit for their child – a unique solution to a problem facing school districts in many parts of the country.

French immersion has become popular across Canada with parents looking to give their children a competitive edge. Enrolment has climbed 32 per cent in Ontario over five years, 18 per cent in British Columbia and 12 per cent in Alberta, according to the most recent figures obtained by the non-profit Canadian Parents for French. It has also created headaches for schools boards as principals struggle to search for experienced teachers to satisfy demand.

In Ontario, students are offered entry into French immersion in either kindergarten or Grade 1. But after months of consultations, the Halton District School Board will put forward a recommendation to trustees on Wednesday to delay entry until Grade 2, from Grade 1, and have students spend the entire day speaking French, as opposed to just half the day.

“With this option, we believe parents will have more information and think more carefully prior to making the decision as it is a bigger decision entering into a 100-per-cent model. This should result in students who are more suited to the program,” said David Boag, Halton’s associate director. “Uptake will likely be reduced, and we would also expect to see lower attrition each year.”

Halton’s proposed change is controversial. Evidence suggests that the earlier children learn a second language, the better.

“It is not the best practice,” Betty Gormley, executive director of Canadian Parents for French (Ontario), said on Sunday of Halton’s proposal. “We believe in best practice and the best practice that has been afforded by research is … early entry, intensity and time-on-task. So that would translate into a kindergarten or Grade 1 entry with 100-per-cent French as the language of instruction.”

Trustees will make a decision on the recommendation later in June.

The Peel District School Board took drastic measures four years ago as it struggled to find qualified teachers. The board capped French immersion at 25 per cent of total Grade 1 enrolment, and now uses a lottery system when the number of students opting for the program exceeds the available spots.

In Halton, where close to a quarter of all elementary school children are enrolled in French immersion, communities have been in upheaval plagued by countless boundary reviews, and children are kept out of their neighbourhood schools as the English-only program is phased out. The English stream is so gutted that in at least a dozen elementary schools, there are Grade 1 classes with 15 students or fewer remaining in English.

One school in Burlington has four Grade 1 students in the English stream. The other 53 are in French immersion.

Mr. Boag said the proposed change is “a bit of a compromise” between the options brought forward by a committee that widely consulted on how to keep both the English and French programs viable.

He said that Grade 2 is still an early enough entry point, which was important to educators and the community, and the change would cause minimal, if any, disruption to the school system. Among the options considered was starting French immersion later on in Grade 4 or capping French immersion in Grade 1.

“Increased intensity and early entry are shown to support French language acquisition, and while we wanted to solve our program viability challenges, we wanted to ensure we were addressing French language acquisition as well,” he said.

The changes to the program, if approved, would be implemented for those entering Grade 2 in the 2018-19 academic year. Children in Grade 1 would have core French, where students learn French as a subject, and families can have a feel for a more structured classroom environment, as opposed to kindergarten, which is play-based in Ontario. In Grade 2, those who choose French immersion would study the language in all subjects, and it would slowly drop to 50 per cent of subjects by Grade 4.

Students currently enrolled in the French immersion program would be grandfathered and allowed to complete elementary school in the model as it stands now.

Kelly Amos, chair of the Halton board, said trustees only received the recommendation late Friday and will consult with the community before the board votes.

“It is too early at this point to say anyone, including myself, has made up their mind about this very complex topic,” Ms. Amos said in an e-mail. “It is too early in the process to be able to say if trustees support this recommendation or not.”

Published Sunday, May 29, 2016 9:44PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, May 29, 2016 9:47PM EDT