Lottery losses have B.C. parents hoping for French teachers from Europe

VANCOUVER — British Columbia parents who have lost the chance to get their children into French immersion through a lottery system are hoping the education minister’s teacher-recruitment trip to Europe will create more opportunities for early bilingualism.

Rahel Staeheli said she registered her daughter Milani for French immersion at two schools but learned in February that she didn’t get a kindergarten spot for September, landing her at 53rd and 57th place on wait lists.

Staeheli has since registered Milani at a third school further from their home in Surrey, only to see her at the bottom of another wait list.

“We contacted the school board after we found out our wait-list numbers and they basically said, ‘You’re never getting in,’ ” she said.

“We’re really disappointed to learn that there isn’t necessarily an equal opportunity for all children to learn our second national language,” said Staeheli, adding her father speaks English, French, Swiss, Spanish and Swiss German, and she wants her children to at least be conversant in Canada’s two official languages.

She said her daughter may have to wait to get into early French immersion in Grade 1, but fears she may again lose out on a spot because children with siblings already in the program are given priority.

That would have Milani and students in a similar situation waiting to enter “late” French immersion in Grade 6, when they would have to change schools if the program isn’t offered at their school. Forty-eight of 60 school districts offer the program.

Parents in various provinces share Staeheli’s frustration, but advocates in B.C. say demand for French immersion enrolment is particularly strong in their province, where a Supreme Court of Canada decision in November 2016 restored small class sizes, requiring more teachers in all subjects.

Education Minister Rob Fleming said nearly 3,700 teachers overall have been hired in the last year and the hiring process continues, but demand for French immersion far outstrips the number of available teachers, leaving the province competing for educators with other jurisdictions in Canada.

Fleming said 37 of 100 new seats added to education faculties at British Columbia universities are specifically for those intending to teach French immersion, which is taught to almost 10 per cent of B.C.’s public school population.

His trip to France and Belgium earlier this month was an “aggressive” effort to recruit French teachers, he said, adding the province made assurances about removing barriers to temporary work permits and citizenship, along with faster accreditation of education degrees and teacher licensing.

“I think what this trip was really about was opening doors of recruitment, to let the governments of France and Belgium know that we’re serious about the teaching opportunities that exist here in B.C., which means promoting B.C. as a vibrant, dynamic part of Canada that is not Ontario and Quebec, which they’re most familiar with,” Fleming said.

“Ninety-five per cent of the business they currently do is with Quebec. They are not aware that the anglophone provinces have a significant and growing interest in French-language education,” he said, adding B.C. would pay for teachers’ relocation costs and provide scholarships for those wanting to complete their training at the province’s French-teacher education institutions.

Glyn Lewis, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon chapter of Canadian Parents for French, said the organization noted a worsening teacher-supply problem four years ago and issued a report, but received little response from either provincial or federal governments.

“Last spring when the Vancouver School Board cut a quarter of its program and turned all those families away because they couldn’t find teachers I went to the (provincial) government and said, ‘We told you this was going to happen.’ “

A lottery system for French-immersion registration was introduced by some school districts to replace long pre-registration lineups outside schools, where parents often camped out over several days.

“Families are still being turned away, whether through a lottery system, a campout or a wait-list system at 20 of 48 school districts,” Lewis said.

Heritage Canada spokesman Simon Ross said the department has hiked funding for various French-language programs, including $31 million to recruit more immersion and French-as-a–second-language teachers as part of a plan to increase the bilingualism rate of English speakers outside Quebec.

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