Miramichi Leader OnLine Edition, by Daniel Martins
Published Monday May 19th, 2008
School District 16 superintendent Laurie Keoughan faced an angry crowd of parents at a meeting on May 13 at Croft Elementary School.
Keoughan was there to talk about upcoming changes to the French education curriculum, but many parents were more interested in restoring the early immersion program cut by the provincial government earlier this year.
"For 30 years we were on the right track," said Mindy Schenkels. "And today I am stunned that I will leave this gymnasium. I have a child, and I have no option for that child."
Schenkels' brother in law, John Schenkels, was more critical, saying the changes had been forced through by the provincial government and Education Minister Kelly Lamrock.
"There are a lot of parents here that feel they're not being heard by the minister, because he's refused to really acknowledge that this is an issue, even though people have spoken out," he said.
Under the new program, early french immersion will be eliminated, as will core french instruction prior to Grade 5.
That's when students will undergo intensive French which, for half of the year, will require them to receive 70 per cent of their instruction completely in French.
For the second half of the year, the French component will be rolled back to around 150 minutes per week, scheduled for one afternoon. This would be followed by compulsory post-intensive French in grades 6-12.
Keoughan said the district plans to implement the changes as early as September 2008 to avoid the upheaval of a longer-term adjustment period. According to Keoughan, several teachers will be trained in the program over the summer. He said the curriculum for Grade 5 intensive french, as well as post-intensive programs for grades 6-8 are already written, with curricula for the remaining grades on the way.
"We are, as a district, concerned that we get this right," he said. "They're your kids, and I know that's your concern as well."
But he stressed that whatever his personal feelings, he was just the messenger.
"The minute I walk into that office, I leave my personal opinions behind because I am directed to implement school curriculums in the school district. That's my job."
John Schenkels said the details coming from Keoughan were too vague for the parents' liking.
"It's May, and we're looking at starting this thing in September. The details should be there," he said. "We should know what should be coming in Grade 6. We should know what should be coming in Grade 12. That plan should be there. We need the details."
District 16 Second Language Coordinator Jacqueline Roy-Patterson told the parents research and experience with intensive French in other provinces, based on research from Memorial University in Newfoundland and sources in New Brunswick, had shown positive results, even with children considered to have difficulty in Grade 4 English.
"The intensive French program is good," she said. "It does produce results. The teacher training is good, the methodology is sound."
John Schenkels suggested the research was uncertain and incomplete.
"You have no way to tell me today that, at Grade 12, my child is going to be in the intermediate grade, because you haven't proven it anywhere," he said. "You haven't proven it in Newfoundland; you haven't proven it in New Brunswick; you haven't proven it in Quebec. It isn't proven."
Jennifer Amos was also skeptical of the program, saying mandatory intensive French in Grade 5 would be hard on some students.
"The fact remains that not every child has the capacity for a second language," she said.
Cynthia Wiley agreed, noting it would be even harder without core French in earlier grades.
"To me, it's kind of scary to throw your kids into a different language with no background at all," she said.
Keoughan acknowledged some children could struggle, but said the answer was not to exempt them from the program.
"I think we need to think outside the box to find new ways of including them," he said.
Lila Barry attacked the mandatory nature of the intensive program on the grounds that children with mental disorders could struggle with it, leading to frustration, anger-management issues and problems at home.
"Why is the department of education setting these high-risk children up for such a state?" she asked. "As a parent, none of those outcomes are acceptable."
Keoughan replied that the department would look at each child's individual needs.
"As the months roll on toward September, I'm sure those issues will be dealt with," he said.
At the end of the evening, many parents were still demanding that the changes be reversed. Bill Schenkels demanded to know what could be done on the parents' part to accomplish that, and said many teachers had been forced to stay silent on the issue.
"If we need to support the teachers and give them a voice, we will do that," he said.
"I'm very passionate that this is the wrong decision. It has been forced through and we're putting our children at risk."
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Bloggers' comment: Reminder -- The description of intermediate proficiency from NB DOE includes:
"Able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements. Can handle routine work-related interactions that are limited in scope. In more complex and sophisticated work-related tasks, language usage generally disturbs the native speaker." ... "The individual's utterances are minimally cohesive. Linguistic structure is usually not very elaborate and not thoroughly controlled; errors are frequent. ..."
It appears that having 70% of our graduating class capable of minimally cohesive utterances is acceptable to the Minister. We wonder whether it is acceptable to New Brunswickers, especially when it comes at such a high personal cost to the hundreds of students who will no longer graduate as truly bilingual citizens.