As the school year gets underway, the Yukon’s French immersion program is proving more popular than ever.
The territory’s immersion program is based at Whitehorse Elementary and F. H. Collins Secondary schools. But this year, for the first time, a new French immersion Kindergarten class is being held in Selkirk Elementary to house overflow students.
“It’s a demonstration that parents want their kids to get some strong programming in our second official language,” said Kristina Craig, president of the Yukon branch of Canadian Parents for French, a non-profit organization that promotes French-language education. “I think that people want immersion. They see it as an opportunity.” Craig herself has three children in the immersion program.
Her organization recently released a survey of French immersion enrolment numbers over the last several years. In the 2014/15 school year, 633 students were enrolled in French immersion at Whitehorse Elementary and F. H. Collins Secondary. That’s up from 376 in the 2003/04 school year – an increase of nearly 70 per cent.
Last year, about 12 per cent of Yukon students were enrolled in French immersion.
“We are really pleased to see that. Because for us it means that people are aware of the importance of learning French in Canada,” said Isabelle Salesse, executive director of the Association franco-yukonnaise. “Maybe Yukoners see learning French more as an opportunity than as a burden.”
Salesse pointed out that the Yukon is the third-most bilingual jurisdiction in Canada, after Quebec and New Brunswick. She said the vibrant francophone culture here could be part of what’s driving parents to enrol their kids in French immersion.
But the report from Canadian Parents for French also cautioned that the “booming popularity of this well-established program is creating a shortage of qualified French language teachers.”
Craig said it can be difficult to find teachers who are fluently bilingual in English and French, and who have sufficient training for the job.
But Nicole Morgan, director of learning support services with the Department of Education, disagreed.
“Currently, we have not had any challenges filling our positions for French-speaking teachers,” she said, adding that there are currently no job openings for permanent positions.
This year, there are close to 50 French immersion teachers in the territory.
Still, Morgan said the government is looking at how best to manage the growing popularity of the program, possibly including more new classes like the one at Selkirk.
She said the department will survey parents this fall to assess their interest in French immersion, and plans to make a decision about program expansion in January.
But despite the growing enrolment numbers, students are still dropping out of French immersion in the higher grades. Last year, 54 Kindergarten students were enrolled at Whitehorse Elementary, but only 26 were enrolled in Grade 12 at F. H. Collins. That’s an improvement from a decade ago, when there were just 16 students in grade 12. But Craig said more needs to be done to keep students in the program. She’d like to see the Yukon adopt something like the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which would give students internationally recognized certification for their French-language skills.
“We haven’t instituted that here, and it’s a big hole,” she said. “I think that the incentives just are not there for kids to carry on.”
Craig pointed out that students who plan on going to university may be inclined to drop out of French immersion to ensure their marks stay high.
Morgan said the Department of Education is considering adopting the European framework for the immersion program.
During the 2014/15 school year, there were 2,482 French second-language students in the Yukon, including those in the immersion program.
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