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Prince Rupert SD52 French Immersion numbers down, Coast Mountain SD82 increase

SD52 dropped the ball with program promotion, AFFNO says
Patrick Witwicki, AFFNO executive director said SD52 dropped the ball by not promoting the French Immersion program, possibly resulting in decreased student enrollment. (Photo: Norman Galimski/The Northern View)

French Immersion education numbers are down in Prince Rupert School District 52, up in Coast Mountain School District 82, and overall are increasing across the province, BC and Yukon Canadian Parents for French (CPF), stated in a media release on Aug. 29.

“We know there remains strong demand for French Immersion programs in the province. In Skeena/North Coast, school districts have seen overall general student enrollment decrease in recent years,” said Jason Howe CPF BC & Yukon executive director.

The CPF Skeena/North Coast Region includes Prince Rupert SD52, Bulkley Valley SD54, Coast Mountain SD82, and Nechako SD 91, where there are more than 1,053 FI students, equating to 9.63 percent of the total student body of 10,932. The region also includes Stakine SD 87, Nisga’a SD92, and Haida Gwaii SD50 which do not have existing FI programs.

More than 53,000 students in B.C. were enrolled in the French Immersion (FI) program last year for the 2021-2022 school calendar.

But numbers provided to CPF from the Ministry of Education show a decline in enrollment in Prince Rupert by 2.38 per cent compared to the prior year. That means FI student numbers dropped to 205 from 210.

While this may not seem like a large amount overall the result of the decrease has perpetual effects, said Patrick Witwicki executive director of Association des Francophones et Francophiles (AFFNO). A decrease in numbers in any given year will carry through each year.

Witwicki explained over the past several years the program has been cut or attempted to be cut in various school districts. However, Prince Rupert and its school district traditionally have been strong and proud supporters of the program. Sadly, that appears to be changing he said.

AFFNO is in discussions with CPF Prince Rupert about the numbers for the 2022-2023 kindergarten enrollment being the lowest in 15 years, or at least since AFFNO has held a presence in the city, Witwicki said.

“There is one basic reason for this — SD52 completely dropped the ball this past year, regarding French Immersion,” he said.

“SD52 followed the trend that most other northern school districts have done lately with French Immersion … which is basically offer the program, but not bother to promote it in any way. This is sad because, for years, the Prince Rupert School Board was easily the best school board in the Northwest regarding the program. But unfortunately, that is not the case anymore,” Witwicki said.

Nancy Taylor CPF BC & Yukon president said, “As we head into the new school year, we know the demand for French Second Language programs remains high.”

“We commend those school districts across the province that have been finding ways to increase the availability of French immersion in their communities,” says Taylor. “In some regions, that has meant hundreds more students can enrol in French immersion now compared to a few years ago.”

“Each year, there are a number of families in British Columbia who would like to enrol their children in French immersion but can’t because demand outweighs availability,” notes Howe. “The reasons provided by school districts for these wait lists usually include a combination of lack of space and a shortage of qualified teachers. Our families want to see progress on these issues.”

Witwicki explained in the past there have not been enough French Immersion teachers in SD52 and there have been more students than could be accommodated. That situation has done an about-face where there are now enough teachers, but fewer students to sustain the teaching numbers.

The AFFNO executive director said apart from lack of program promotion and exposure, there are other factors he has heard that may impact the enrollment numbers in the city.

“I heard from [some] parents over the summer that the price of gas was to blame, as they didn’t want to be driving their kids across town every day, preferring instead to be able to walk to the school closest to their house.”

“Terrace, Kitimat, Hazelton in Coast Mountain School District (SD82) has a very good school bus system, which helps out the gas price problem. Right now, in both Terrace and Hazelton, French Immersion has actually seen a resurgence in numbers since 2017 when they almost cut the program from the high schools,” he said.

School District 82 saw a 1.77 per cent increase in FI students in the 2021-22 school year with 459 students up from 451. A 6.25 per cent increase was noted in numbers from five years ago when there were 432 students. Out of the 3,949 students in both English and French streams, 11.62 per cent are FI students, CPF stated.

“While the percentage of students in French immersion is at its highest level ever, actual enrolment numbers in B.C. dropped slightly this past school year,” the organization stated.

There were 189 fewer students in French immersion than the year before in the province, a decrease of 0.35 per cent in students. That continues the trend seen during the 2020-21 school year, when the pandemic created accessibility and participation issues that contributed to the first decrease in French immersion enrolment numbers in 20 years.

However, total student enrolment in B.C. public schools this past year dipped more substantially than French immersion enrolment, resulting in an increase in the percentage of French immersion students, CPF stated in their media statement.

“It’s a good time to hear from the school districts about what they plan to do to meet demand for French Immersion and what they are doing to recruit and retain qualified teachers. There’s also something to be said about providing support and encouragement for students in French Immersion as they move into the higher grades,” Howe said.

The Northern View has reached out to SD52 for comment.

K-J Millar | Editor and Multimedia Journalist
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