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Opportunities for local public school students to study in French have increased significantly.
Jo-Anne St. Godard and her husband, Jean François Thibault, were avid travellers long before they met and married. Now a family of three, the travels haven’t stopped – and are even partly responsible for the education choices they’ve made for their son.
The couple want Noah, 9, to be comfortable and appreciative of the culture in the places they visit, even when he doesn’t know the language. But Hockley, where they live, is predominantly English-speaking and Canadian-born, so they enrolled Noah in École élémentaire des Quatre-Rivières, the French-language public school in Orangeville.
They hope the experience will breed understanding and tolerance of other cultures, and that he will develop an ear for languages. “I want him to know there is more to life than the community he comes from and to respect the differences,” says Jo-Anne.
French was the natural choice for this family. Jean François, who is from Quebec City, has relatives who speak only French. So his parents also want Noah to learn about French culture and be able to converse fluently in both languages.
There are other benefits, of course. Because Canada has two official languages, people who are fluent in both have increased job opportunities and a higher median income. An increasingly global economy gives those who speak more than one language – especially French – an edge. French is an official language in about 30 countries and is commonly spoken in over 50, second only to English.
Studies show that learning another language improves cognitive and problem-solving abilities, enhances creativity, and makes you a better listener. And there’s a long-term benefit: A 2010 study by the University of Toronto-affiliated Rotman Research Institute shows that bilingualism can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms for as much as five years.
Despite all the benefits, Jo-Anne, an anglophone, was intimidated about enrolling Noah at Quatre-Rivières. All the correspondence, including parent-teacher interviews, is in French. Jean François, a pilot, travels a lot, so much of the homework help and teacher interaction would fall on her shoulders.
In addition, Noah knew little French. His father spoke French to him so he understood it fairly well but shied away from speaking it. The principal suggested they give it three months and said he would “turn it on” at that point. She was right.
This year, as he enters Grade 5, Jo-Anne sees Noah as fully bilingual. He switches easily from French to English, and his grandparents confirm that he speaks and enunciates in French very well.
This is the goal of the school, complete bilingualism, both written and oral. Claire Francoeur, director of communications and marketing for Conseil scolaire Viamonde, Ontario’s French public school board, says, “It’s not just a question of speaking; it’s a question of thinking in French.” The students learn and play in French, even on the playground at recess.
Quatre-Rivières is one of 47 schools that make up the Conseil scolaire Viamonde. The 33 elementary schools, 13 secondary, and one kindergarten to Grade 12 host more than 10,000 students and employ over 750 teachers.
Most of the students have at least one parent whose mother tongue is French or who was educated in French. Section 23, Minority Language Educational Rights of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees they can receive their education in French where there are enough eligible children.
However, it is difficult to pinpoint how many local francophone children there are. In the 2011 census, 725 people in the Town of Caledon and another 725 in Dufferin County listed French as their mother tongue, representing 1.25 per cent of the area’s total population. While this may not take all those who qualify under Section 23 into account, it does highlight the significance of Canada’s minority language education rights, especially when you consider that the Italian-speaking (5 per cent) and German-speaking (1.4 per cent) populations are higher.
“We’re blessed with the opportunity to send our kid to a French school in our community,” Jo-Anne says. Especially since less than a decade ago, options were much more limited. Children could take a long bus ride to Erin, where French Immersion was offered at Brisbane Public School, or to a French-language school in Brampton. Extended French was available for Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board students entering Grade 5.
Quatre-Rivières opened in September 2008, and French Immersion arrived at Princess Elizabeth Public School, also in Orangeville, a year later.
Even with all the choices, Quatre-Rivières’ small size and corresponding small class sizes – sometimes fewer than 10 students – made the decision to enrol her two children a “no-brainer” for Suzanne Presseault. The school opened with just 28 students. Last year, there were 108 from JK to Grade 8 and, this September, they opened “Le jardin fleuri,” a French language daycare centre on the school grounds for children as young as 18 months.
Suzanne and her husband both grew up in French communities, but they spoke English at home to make things easier for their son, who is in Grade 6. He required speech therapy, and services were unavailable in French. At Quatre-Rivières he receives individual attention and has a teaching assistant to help with his special needs. “Teachers and staff are very dedicated to the school and to giving the best quality education that can be provided,” Suzanne says. “It’s a great place to be.”
Both her children – her daughter is in Grade 5 – picked up French quickly. By Christmas of their first year, they had a good grasp of it. There have also been no issues with English, likely because outside of school the children are immersed in English, so they absorb the vocabulary and grammar. In Grade 4, they begin the same English language arts curriculum as their peers in English-language schools.
Those peers begin French as a Second Language in the same year. Students take Core French in Grades 4 to 8 and then take one high school credit as a requirement for graduation. The vision of the French as a Second Language program is that all students will be comfortable using French in their daily lives.
Students who are interested in a more intense French experience can take Extended French or French Immersion. These programs are provided at the discretion of individual school boards, and may look different from one board to another. All programs follow the Ontario curriculum with the only difference being the language of instruction and study. Research shows that proficiency improves with the amount of time spent in French instruction.
In Extended French, a minimum of 25 per cent of classroom instruction is in French. In addition to French language arts, at least one other subject is taught in French. Students receive a minimum of 1,260 hours of education in French by the end of Grade 8 – about twice as many as in Core French. In high school, students take seven credits in French, including four French as a Second Language credits.
Students in French Immersion receive at least 3,800 hours of French by the end of Grade 8. At least half of their instruction time is in French, including at least two other subjects. In high school, they take four French as a Second Language credits, and six other subjects in French.
Extended French and French Immersion are offered at only a few schools to concentrate resources, but transportation is available to all eligible students. High school choices are even more limited. The nearest French language secondary school is in Brampton. French Immersion and Extended French students, depending on their school board, are bused to Caledon or Erin. As a result, many elect to drop intensive French and attend their local high schools instead.
In some families one child may pursue a different path than his or her siblings.
Candice Landriault’s oldest son saw the benefit of continuing his French studies and receiving his certificate of concentration in Extended French. Bryson is a Grade 10 student in the program at Robert F. Hall in Caledon East.
Her younger son, now in Grade 6, started off in Extended French last year at St. Andrew Catholic School in Orangeville, but switched back to his home school after Christmas. Logan had loved his new school and made new friends, but it was a big adjustment. Students spend half their days in English instruction in one classroom, and the other half in French in another. He also had several teachers – one French, one English, and others for individual subjects. Logan also found he had more homework than students in the English stream. With a lot of outside activities to juggle as well, including playing rep hockey, he was stressed trying to balance everything.
While Candice knows it’s normal for grades to dip in the first year, she didn’t expect his grades to fall in math – a subject he’s good at when taught in English. After speaking with the teachers, other parents and both boys, they decided he should leave the Extended French program.
She’s glad he tried it, but knows they made the best decision for him.
There are definitely challenges with any of the French programs. The first few months can be difficult for students, especially older ones. Being immersed in a new language requires more effort and concentration, and fatigue can be an issue. Students may also have to adapt to a new school, new classmates, new teachers and new routines.
Parents may also struggle to help their children with homework, but resources are available to help. The Ministry of Education website offers ways parents can support their children, even if they don’t speak French themselves.
Jo-Anne St. Godard says there is lots of support available at Quatre-Rivières as well. “The teachers are great. They respect the fact that there are parents who don’t speak the language.” She’s also not ashamed to use Google Translate when she needs to, and the school board offers a homework help website and toll-free helpline, SOS Devoirs, to all Ontario French language students.
Kolleen McIlveen was aware of the potential difficulties and considered her son’s first year in French Immersion a trial year. She enrolled Nolan after speaking with his kindergarten teacher, who thought he would benefit from the challenge. He is now in Grade 6 and doing well in the program.
She discovered that homework is not an issue. When her son was younger, he brought home French readers that she could help with. “The early learning in French is pretty basic, and it gives parents an opportunity to learn as well,” Kolleen says. Now that her son is older, the French work tends to stay at school.
A challenge she didn’t expect was the standardized tests students write in Grade 3, which is the first year French Immersion students at Princess Elizabeth receive instruction in English. The Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), an independent Government of Ontario agency, administers this province-wide test of math and literacy skills. Students wrote the French math test, but the reading and writing portions were in English.
While she was confident in her son’s skills, she says, “It’s a huge stress to put on the kids during their first year of English instruction.” Test scores, however, indicate that French Immersion students are not at a disadvantage.
Overall, the school works hard to integrate the students through trips with both English and French Immersion students and through school clubs which connect kids through mutual interests rather than their language stream.
Still, the kids in the program are a close bunch. Most of them have been together since kindergarten and have really grown up with each other.
Kolleen has been happy with the experience. “It’s great that French Immersion has come to Orangeville. It gives our children greater opportunities and breaks down barriers within our country. It’s a harmonizing thing.”
It’s all part of the acceptance and confidence Jo-Anne hoped Noah would learn from attending Quatre-Rivières. He’s not intimidated by cultural differences or unfamiliar languages.
When they visited Brazil recently, he had no reservations about joining the local kids in a game of soccer, even though they spoke nothing but Portuguese and he didn’t understand a word of it. He wasn’t afraid to make mistakes when trying to communicate, and they found a way around the language barrier.
As Jo-Anne says, when you try to speak in a new language, “You have to be patient, and you have to be brave” – and these kids are.
A Guide to French-Language Education and Resources in the Headwaters Region
Conseil scolaire Viamonde
English language arts instruction begins in Grade 4.
École élémentaire des Quatre-Rivières (Orangeville)
École secondaire Jeunes sans frontières (Brampton)
Peel District School Board
French Immersion and Extended French
French Immersion begins in Grade 1. From Grades 1 to 8, students spend half their day in English and half in French.
Extended French begins in Grade 7. Students in Grades 7 and 8 spend half their day in English and half in French.
Herb Campbell Public School (Caledon)
James Bolton Public School (Caledon)
Walnut Grove Public School (Caledon)
Allan Drive Middle School (Caledon) – Extended French (Grades 7 and 8) and French Immersion
Humberview Secondary School (Caledon)
Dufferin-Peel Catholic School District School Board
Extended French begins in Grade 5. Instruction time is divided equally, with some subjects taught in English, others in French.
French Immersion is available in Brampton, but parents are responsible for their child’s transportation. Students in Grade 1 receive 90 per cent instruction in French. English instruction increases to 50 per cent in later years.
St. Andrew Elementary School (Orangeville)
Holy Family Elementary School (Bolton)
Robert F. Hall Catholic Secondary School (Caledon East)
Upper Grand District School Board
From JK to Grade 2, students receive all instruction in French. English instruction begins in Grade 3 and the amount increases up to 50 per cent in Grades 7 and 8.
Brisbane Public School (Erin) JK to Grade 6
Erin Public School (Erin) Grades 7–8
Princess Elizabeth Public School (Orangeville) JK to Grade 3
Mono-Amaranth Public School (Orangeville) Grades 4–8
Erin District High School (Erin)
Wellington Catholic District School Board
Core French only
French Education Resources
Ontario Ministry of Education: French-Language Education in Ontario
See the link to Resources for Parents
Canadian Parents for French
FSL Homework Toolbox
In English: www1.tfo.org/education/info-in-english#.U-GbrfldXKE
In French: www1.tfo.org/education#.U-GbmPldXKF