Amid concerns about the program’s sustainability and quality, the School District 58 Board of Education discussed its French Immersion program and addressed parents’ concerns during their recent regular meeting. District staff apologized for the lack of communication surrounding a recent reduction in the percentage of French instruction students in the program at Merritt Secondary School (MSS) were receiving, and overall concerns by students and parents about program areas that lacked academic support.

Speaking at the Board of Education’s February 8 meeting, top SD58 brass took responsibility for the missing communication on what the district identified as a lack of staffing and a difficulty recruiting new French teachers. 

“There is a temporary vacancy at Merritt Secondary School, which has resulted in a reduction of French to 25 percent,” said Superintendent Stephen McNiven, addressing parents’ concerns at the board meeting. 

“We have a two teacher model there that helps us keep that recommended 50 percent or higher in place. We had a temporary vacancy take place late April or May, but I think the position was actually filled with a non-French Immersion teacher May 12 or May 16. That resulted in a reduction of the French from 50 percent to 25 percent, which is below the recommendation, whoever, it is meeting the funding requirements, which is helpful from a sustainability program point of view, but not where we want to be.”

École Élémentaire Collettville, a French immersion school on Lindley Creek Road in Merritt, along with Merritt Secondary school offer local students the option for a K-12 education with a proficiency in the French language. Those who graduate through this program receive not only a B.C. Dogwood Diploma, but also a diploma de fin d’études secondaire en Colombie-Britannique for completing their French language learning as well. Graduates in the Class of 2023 are set to graduate with their “Double Dogwood,” but those in 2024 could be one Grade 11 level class short. 

School District 58 has low transition numbers for students going from Collettville into MSS’ French Immersion program. Numbers presented by McNiven during the meeting say that an average class size of 20 students at Collettville translates to roughly 7.7 graduates from the French program at MSS. The average class size for French students at MSS currently sits around 10.5. Some parents attending the meeting voiced their concerns about a large disparity in the difficulty of assignments and learning between the Grade 7 and 8 levels. The district said it continues to recruit new French teachers with ongoing job posting, a potential part-time co-teaching strategy, and by accessing regional recruitment support. 

“I know that recruitment of French teachers has always been a challenge, and I think we’ve been pretty good at growing our own,” noted Trustee John Chenoweth during discussion on the topic. 

“Previously, we have had former SD58 grads go off and get their teaching degree and come back to teach, and I think we even have one or two there now, which is very nice to see.”

Trustees discussed the hiring of more teachers and support staff, and overall voiced their support for the French Immersion Program. When one parent suggested the implementation of a French Advisory Committee composed of students, teachers, and parents in the program, Trustees and staff seemed receptive to the idea. Parents attending were frustrated by the district’s lack of communication, with some adding that the chain of trust between parents and their elected school board officials had been broken. 

Although at a reduced level of instruction for some students, School District 58 will continue its French Immersion Program, with district staff committing to find new and innovative ways to support is continuity.