There’s a golden opportunity lurking deep below the surface of one of the most challenging issues facing school systems right across the country. But while more and more districts are grappling with the increased interest in and high uptake of French Immersion (FI) programs—some opening their doors to students as early as Kindergarten, the opportunity to take a deeper dive into questions of mission and vision may be missed along the way.
In a sense, this is understandable. After all, the popularity of FI among Canadian parents continues to be on the uptick, bringing with it closely-connected challenges around staffing, transportation, student support and the viability of English programming in some communities. These are very visible issues and can quickly become hot buttons for district and school administrators, trustees and parents. Solutions don’t come easy and consensus is often very difficult to reach.
But there is a sense in which these immediate concerns might take us away from the opportunity to tackle some more fundamental questions that, despite their currency in the professional literature and the blogosphere, likely aren’t regular items on many school board, staff meeting or parent council agendae. So what might those questions be and how are they connected with conversations about French Immersion programs?
Well, first, I’m going to go out on a bit of limb and suggest that, choosing a French Immersion program may not always be about French, per se. When you think about it, the option to choose a French or English stream for our children may be the only choice that most parents actually get in a publicly-funded system! In most Canadian contexts, school assignment is largely a function of geographical location and we know that geographical location is largely a function of socio-economic status. But, whether offered in the neighbourhood school or whether enrolment will require moving schools, the option to say “yes” or “no” to FI is one of the only choices that parents of younger children currently have. For many, that is significant.
So, if we travel just a little below the surface, we encounter this rather sticky question about choice in public education and its a question that has implications for individual families, neighbourhood schools and entire systems.
But it isn’t the only issue that we meet on our deep dive. In fact, adjacent to the question about choice is another about equity, especially in terms of access and support. There was a time when French Immersion programs was perceived to be a more rigorous option—one that might preclude some students from entry. These days, however, many districts make it abundantly clear that all students are welcome to apply. Fine to say, but what pressures and concomitant effects does this place on the system in terms of being able to support all who choose the program? And what commitment is there to the success of all who enrol in an FI program? These are important questions arising soon after you wade into the choice discussion. It’s also a question that touches down at the personal, local school and system levels.
A third area of conversation is probably best understood not as a question, but as more of a tension—a fundamental tension. And even though it has likely always existed, it’s a tension that, I believe, is becoming more pronounced as we move further into our re-visioning work in public education. It’s a tension that pulls between two polarities: the success of MY child and the success of ALL children. Refreshed narratives around personalization, the development of individual potential and the desire to have our children maintain a competitive edge appear, in some ways, to be diametrically opposed to a vision of systems that are committed to social justice, equity and the success of all. Again, its a conversation that invites consideration by individual families, school communities and entire districts.
While the French Immersion context is not the only one that could lead us into a consideration of these more fundamental questions and challenges. But it seems to be a context that has currency and import for many Canadian districts. So, what might happen if, alongside our deliberations about the practicalities and logistics connected with offering sustainable FI programs in our school districts, we also took the time to develop the space to engage in these deeper, admittedly philosophical, questions about purpose, choice and access. What might be the result if some of these questions found their way onto the agenda at local school board meetings, parent gatherings and provincial roundtables?
My sense is that the result will be a different understanding of the importance of programs like French Immersion (and other forms of language instruction). Beyond that, however, (and, I would argue, more important) it will also open up some important dialogue about the meaning of public education in the 21st century. How can we develop viable and vibrants systems that are comfortable offering valuable choices like French Immersion, but still have a commitment to the broader social values of public education?