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REPORTING · 28th May 2014
Walter McFarlane
Monica Rigoni from Parents for French in Kitimat and Patrick Witwicky from AFFNO presented to the School Board on the changes to the bussing for French Immersion Students on Wednesday, May 21st.

“We are very concerned about the increased cost to send students to French Immersion and we are very concerned about parents who are going to be considering French Immersion. We find that a lot of our parents are happy with the program once they are a part of it. We’re concerned about the long term effects.”

She explained a family which is considering French Immersion would have to pay $2800 to bus their children to French Immersion. This would be a deterrent to parents with low incomes. She pointed out parents have a right to choice regarding the schooling of their children.

“We do not want to make French Immersion an exclusive program. We want it open to all parents and all families within our area. We do not want parents unable to afford to go into French Immersion,” said Regoni.

She told the Board that this program does help children in many areas, particularly careers. A second language opens doors for children looking for summer jobs, allows them to study abroad. A second language also aids in the learning of a third language.

Parents for French is concerned by increasing costs, the school board will also be decreasing the number of students in the program and this will lead to split class rooms which will mean more challenges to students who are in it.

She expressed Hazelton and Terrace are also concerned about the change. However, in Kitimat, this change to the program changes something else.

“In 2002, the board closed Cormorant,” said Rigoni. “The parents were promised free busing at that time to Kildala. […] The reason for that promise is still valid. 82% of our children live outside of the [area]. The District, for reasons you needed to, moved the program from the students down the hill and you have to keep it down the hill due to levels.”

She asked the board if it was fair to the students to charge them for busing if they move the program away from them. She reminded them they received funding from French Immersion which they could lose if classes become too small.

“The right to education should not be controlled by economic status. There will be some parents, I’m sure, who will chose not to go to French Immersion due to the increased costs,” said Rigoni.

Noreen O’Hara from Hazelton also spoke. In Hazelton, students are bussed to John Field Elementary School for French Immersion and to learn to speak Gitxsanimaax and learn about the Gitxsan and culture. She expressed there are a lot of First Nations students at the school.

She stated there were already children bussing into the area to attend high school. She asked them to reconsider their decision.

Witwicky told the board he was a French Immersion Graduate. His parents kept him in the program and he found it opened doors for him and it opens doors for other children as well.

“In Northern BC, we do struggle at times to find ways to keep our kids here in the North after graduation, but there is another level in that, as it works for families too, if the education isn’t there for their children, they will also move,” said Witwicky.

Witwicky explained that French Immersion numbers were on the raise in Terrace while it has remained the same in Hazelton and in Kitimat. He was worried the user fee would affect the numbers in Hazelton where the economy has not been improving.

One of the things which AFFNO has done in Hazelton is work with the school to create trilingual flash cards which have English and French on one side and Gitxsanimaax on the other. He expressed First Nations are taking French Immersion, and at John Field Elementary, all three languages are taught and all three teachers are working together.

“By punishing those who are not as fortunate as us, we are making French Immersion a rich man’s program, that just isn’t right. Implementing this fee, we are drawing a line between the haves and the have not’s and I hope that every person in this room wants nothing more than quality for every child regardless of background,” said Witwicky.

He also pointed out a declining program also means declining funding. The Coast Mountain School District is funded for French and this money can only be spent on French. If the numbers go down, the funding goes down. The money they save with the user fee could go down with the numbers going down.

He asked the board why they were working so hard to damage this program which the communities have been trying to make work. He concluded by reminding the Board that Northern BC is unique. They should show leadership by announcing they want quality for every student in the region, and they want opportunities and a brighter future for those children as well.

School Board Chair Art Erasmus told the presenters now that the board has heard the presentations, they will sit and consider what recommendations have been put forward and will make a decision and then get back to the presenters.