There are many laudable reasons for enrolling your child in French Immersion. But, for this parent, they’re outweighed by a troubling truth.
Parenting is stressful enough on a daily basis but, every once in a while, you must make a decision that could impact your child’s very future. My wife and I recently reached one of these potentially pivotal moments when we hit the deadline to enrol our son Emile in French Immersion… and let it slide. This, despite being immersion grads ourselves.
There were a couple of reasons we decided against French Immersion, which has surged in recent years to comprise nearly 10 per cent of the Toronto District School Board student body (including the “extended French” program), and which has surpassed 342,000 nationwide in 2011.
The first reason was practical. We live across the street from Emile’s elementary school, which he’s attended since he was 16 months old, thanks to its onsite daycare. It’s exceptionally small for a downtown public school, which reduces the anonymity factor that children can face in the much larger schools that are more common in Toronto. This educational intimacy increases the sense of community in both students and parents while helping the teachers and administrators get to know the kids much better.
The other reason is more political. For all its altruistic intentions of increasing bilingualism across Canada, French Immersion has unfortunately led to an elitist, two-tiered public-school system. It allows parents to stream their children away from the socioeconomic and cultural diversity one finds in rest of Toronto’s classrooms. As many have argued, it essentially operates like a publicly funded private-school system.
I’d always assumed French Immersion was predominantly filled with well-off white kids, but it was still shocking to see the actual stats. According to a 2010 Toronto District School Board study, “Students of immigrant parents, from a single-parent household, of a minority group, born outside of Canada, recently arrived to Canada, with special education needs, or living in families with a low socioeconomic status (SES) or with a low educational background are less likely to enrol in French Immersion programs across the TDSB.”
More specifically, the study reveals about 60 per cent of French Immersion students are white, compared to 30 per cent in the regular school system, and that economically, “French Immersion students tend to come from less challenging family circumstances compared with TDSB students in general.”
In the SK-Grade 6 category, which boasts the highest French Immersion enrolment rate before attrition kicks in, 51 per cent of students came from the highest income category ($100,000+) compared to 22 per cent in the general school system. French Immersion also has only eight per cent of students in the lowest income category (under $30,000) compared to 27 per cent in the general system.
These stark divisions continue throughout various other categories. Immersion kids are more likely born in Canada (91-92 per cent vs. 64-81 per cent) and less likely to have special education needs (4 per cent vs 15 per cent).
Moreover, their parents are also more likely born in Canada, married, university educated and heavily involved with their children’s education, including volunteering at schools. This last stat makes a lot of sense to me, as I imagine that these extremely involved parents only want the best for their children, and they believe that French Immersion gives that to them. And it just might. There are studies arguing that a second language helps brain development and improves cognitive function, not to mention the notion that bilingualism can help advance one’s career, reduce unemployment rates, and increase earnings by up to 10 per cent.
But there’s also the (politically incorrect) belief that surrounding your kids with more high-performing, well-off kids and fewer at-risk or special-needs students will improve their education. Or as one scathing Ottawa Citizen editorial put it: “Keep out the slow kids. Keep out the troubled kids. Keep out the poor and the crippled. Only admit the bright, well-behaved, hard-working kids from prosperous homes. That’s the ideal classroom. That’s the one we want our kids in. And thanks to French immersion, we’ve figured out how to get it.” But, according to researcher J. Douglas Willms, who studied the French Immersion program in New Brunswick that sees a similar class-divide as Toronto, ”Children from higher socioeconomic groups tend to do well in any setting … When children with lower ability or children from lower socioeconomic groups are concentrated in particular schools or classes, they tend to perform worse than when they are in mixed ability classes.”
And not only do the students left behind do worse, so do the schools. Joining my local parents council has shown me just how much parental involvement in volunteering and fundraising affects an individual school’s resources. So the concentration of these engaged and well-off parents into the French Immersion stream also takes their contributions away from the regular school system.
Then there’s the fact that each French Immersion class in Ontario reportedly costs at least $75,000 more than a regular class. We’re all paying for that extra cost collectively, but the benefits are going disproportionately to a minority of families who need such financial assistance the least. Perhaps a means-based Immersion tuition could be charged so that the regular public school system isn’t stuck footing their bill.
A few years ago, the federal government released a fact sheet that tried to bust such myths such as “Immersion is only for families that are socioeconomically well off.” Nonetheless, those are the families who are predominantly enrolling in French Immersion, and the government’s belief that these socioeconomic “challenges can be easily resolved by the school boards” has not yet come to pass.
Now, I’d love for Emile to learn French—and my wife and I do read him French books and are teaching him some basics. After all, he’s named for his Parisian-born great-grandfather, my folks are from Montreal, and my brother-in-law is Québécois. I certainly like being bilingual, especially as it allowed me to spend a year attending university in Nice, France. And, of course, I want to give Emile every benefit I can.
But I also understand the class issue first-hand. My experience attending late-Immersion on the west coast was somewhat sullied by the separation between the French Immersion students bussed in and the less well-off local kids. It was a literal class divide, and one I’d rather my son not face.
One of the best parts of living and raising a family in downtown Toronto is its diversity, and ultimately the thought of taking my son out of a school that reflects that diversity seems like it would be teaching him the wrong lesson.
Did you enrol your child in a French Immersion school. What has the experience been like? Let us know in the comments section below.