Vancouver School Board (VSB) trustees are under fire for failing to keep promises they made during last fall’s by-election campaign to restore French immersion classes that were cut during a government-appointed trustee’s watch.
The group “Canadian Parents for French” (CPF) sent a blunt open letter to VSB chair Janet Fraser this week saying parents are frustrated and disappointed by the board’s lack of action on reversing cuts to the popular program.
During the campaign leading up to the October by-election, all the trustees promised to fully reverse the cuts “as soon as possible” and said they would reopen five kindergarten classes that were closed at the end of the past school year.
Almost three months after they were elected, the trustees have done nothing of the sort and haven’t given their staff direction to do so.
One of the lessons I learned as a school trustee is that ticking off French-immersion supporters was asking for beaucoup de problèmes.
French-immersion parents are well organized and passionate about making sure their kids get a chance to learn both of Canada’s official languages. When you promise them something, you need to be darn sure you plan to deliver. Or else.
CPF is a politically savvy national organization, known for holding school officials’ feet to the fire. The CPF’s B.C. and Yukon branch’s former executive director’s name may ring a bell: Adrian Dix. Dix was the bane of more than a few school trustees’ and superintendents’ existence in that role, and current executive director Glyn Lewis is as smart, determined, and persistent as his predecessor. The success and popularity of French-immersion programs are in no small part attributable to the CPF’s tireless and relentless advocacy.
Trustees are tiptoeing around the board table
The VSB trustees are in a tough spot. I’m sure they’d like to keep their promises, but there’s a shortage of French-immersion teachers and their management team is emboldened by a politically split board with no party holding a majority—and it’s armed with reports alleging the previous trustees bullied them.
My guess is the managers don’t see restoring the French-immersion classes as a priority and trustees are nervous about giving them firm direction to do so. There’s a lot of tiptoeing going on around the board table: no one wants to be accused of bullying the staff, and the staff know it.
French immersion is complicated. You can’t just add a kindergarten class here and there. You have to plan for subsequent years, or, in school-board terminology, “cohorts”. That requires figuring out where you have enough classrooms available and whether you’ll be needing them over the next eight years, or longer.
CPF argues, logically, that’s it doesn’t require more space, just careful planning, as kids take the same space whether they’re in the English stream or the French-immersion stream. It’s a fair point. They note there’s a 400-student waitlist in Vancouver, so, in theory, the VSB needs 400 fewer English spaces and 400 more in French immersion (or at the very least the five classes that were cut last year). Theory is one thing, but like I said, you can’t just randomly add classes without thinking of the longer term.
It’s also complicated because French immersion affects regular English-stream classes. When I was a trustee, I paid careful attention to class size and composition data. Teachers cautioned us that increasing French-immersion programs and other choice options like Mandarin, Montessori, fine arts and international baccalaureate left the regular stream with a higher concentration of students with special needs and English-language learners, while more “typical” kids went into choice programs.
That makes it harder to organize classes in a way that’s optimal for learning, undermining some of the key benefits of universally accessible public schools. At some schools, this results in few to no students with special learning needs in the French-immersion stream, with classes in the regular stream having a relatively high proportion of students with special needs and English-language learners.
French-immersion teacher shortage is the biggest challenge
The biggest challenge facing the VSB is the shortage of qualified French-immersion teachers. They’ve been in high demand for years and they’re even more so now with the provincewide teacher shortage. Even if districts fill all their French-immersion classroom positions, if a teacher goes on maternity or parental leave or falls ill, it’s hard to find qualified French-speaking substitutes to cover for them. You can get away with English-speaking subs for a few days in a pinch, but you need French-speaking ones to cover longer-term absences.
CPF says the VSB could be doing more than recruit and retain French teachers. They say it’s “truly baffling” the VSB cut the popular program while other B.C. districts have a larger proportion of students in French immersion and face similar challenges yet continue to grow their programs instead of reducing them.
I doubt the decision to cut the five classes would ever have been made by an elected board. It happened at the VSB when there was no elected oversight or accountability to local voters after the B.C. Liberal provincial government fired the previous board for refusing to approve a budget.
Specifically, CPF suggests the VSB participate in a French teacher-exchange program offered in partnership with the French embassy and French academies. They say many B.C. school districts are already doing so, but the VSB isn’t. They also suggest offering subsidies to teachers to develop French-language proficiency by paying for course fees and related travel costs. It also suggests enabling hiring of uncertified teachers by using an exemption called “letters of permission”.
I emailed the trustees on Monday and asked each of them to let me know if they planned to keep their campaign promises to restore the cut classes as soon as possible, given that they’ve had time to do so but haven’t.
Board chair Janet Fraser says VSB staff—presumably the same ones who recommended chopping the five classes in the first place—are doing “everything possible” to restore the classes by reviewing enrollment projections and reviewing available space and the availability of teachers. She says staff are “exploring” options for teacher recruitment. In other words, they’re reviewing and exploring but not necessarily taking specific action to restore the classes. That’s not what trustees promised voters and it’s not going to fly with the CPF.
Non-Partisan Association (NPA) trustee Lisa Dominato referred me to Fraser’s reply and said “we are undertaking to support” the French-immersion program, whatever the heck that means. Vision Vancouver’s Joy Alexander and Allan Wong both told me they support French immersion but didn’t indicate they would be pushing the matter at the board table. OneCity Vancouver’s sole trustee, Carrie Bercic, said she’ll continue to advocate for the program but fell short of saying she’ll ask the board to direct staff to prepare an actual plan or time line to restore the axed classes. I didn’t get replies from the NPA’s Fraser Ballantyne, Vision’s Ken Clement, and the Green’s Judy Zaichkowsky and Estrellita Gonzalez.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” but is there a will?
The trustees are in a tough spot, and I don’t envy them. They’re certainly not the first elected officials to walk back promises after being elected. But if I was at the table, I’d be making a clear effort to follow through on my promise by asking staff to develop a plan and time line for restoring the classes they cut, along with a longer-term growth plan. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have made the promise in the first place.
With the VSB’s French-immersion kindergarten registration for next fall opening on Monday morning (January 15) and closing on February 5, it’s time for the board to take action instead of tiptoeing around while its staff continues “reviewing and exploring”.
The CPF letter advises VSB trustees that “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” The question is whether the trustees have the will to take some real action on a key election promise. If they don’t, the CPF will be sure to remind them of that when voters head back to the polls in October to elect a new school board.
“Rest assured,” Lewis says in closing the CPF open letter, “we will continue communicating directly with thousands of parents in the upcoming months and going into the next school board election.”
You can bet that’s one promise that will be kept.