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Is French Immersion Unwelcoming for Students with Special Needs?

When they struggle, some kids are encouraged to go back to the ‘regular’ stream. Part of a series.

Katie Hyslop 5 Nov

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them here.

Anita Carroll had an easy time enrolling her daughter in the elementary French immersion program nearly a decade ago. At least compared to other B.C. parents who’ve had to camp outside a school overnight to secure their child a spot.

At the time, lineups for French immersion were just starting to be a thing, said Carroll, whose children are enrolled in the Cowichan Valley School District. “I went early that day just to be on the safe side, and I was like second or third in line, and I got in.”

It was even easier for Carroll’s son, whose enrolment was assured at the time because his older sister was in the program.

But it’s been an uphill battle for him ever since.

The Grade 5 student was diagnosed last year with several special needs and learning disabilities, including severe anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism, and it’s been a struggle to get him adequate education support, Carroll said. "Special needs" is the provincial government term for students with disabilities who require educational supports.

In part, she believes, because he’s in French immersion.

If a parent chooses to put their child into French immersion, there is an assumption by the school and district that if the student is struggling, Carroll said, they can just go back to the English stream.

“So if your child has learning needs, that doesn’t matter, because you chose to put your kid into that school,” she said, adding it feels like the school is pushing her for her son to be in English instead.

“Last December, the principal asked me, ‘Is it time to move your son to an English school? I will hold his seat [in English] for a month and you can let me know how he does.’”

Carroll said she believes French immersion schools push out students with complex needs by not providing them with adequate support, and that the program is “elitist” when it comes to access for children with special needs.

But her children are francophone on their father’s side, and she wants them to receive the benefits of a French education, she said.

Carroll isn’t alone in her assessment of the program.

Across Canada, French immersion has a reputation for being elitist and attracting the wealthiest and whitest students.

While the B.C. Education Ministry doesn’t collect data on race, ability or gender of its French immersion students, the Toronto District School Board does.

In 2013, it found the majority of high school French immersion students were female (61 per cent); white (55 per cent); spoke English as a first language (67 per cent); and, excluding a gifted diagnosis, did not have special needs (96 per cent). They were more likely to come from two-parent households (84 per cent) and have university-educated parents (73 per cent) with professional or semi-professional jobs (76 per cent).

A former B.C. French immersion teacher, who spoke to The Tyee on the condition of anonymity, says Carroll’s experience isn’t unique. A large reason why kids with special needs don’t get the education they need in the program, they said, is the ongoing shortage of French-speaking educators in the province.

“So if your child has a learning disability, it can take longer for that disability to be identified. Or, if it is identified, the child might be encouraged to go into the regular stream so they can access support that they need,” they said.

Overall, they said, the program “could be more inclusive.”

Paying for extra supports

B.C.’s French immersion program is just over 50 years old. But according to government statistics, over the last decade enrolment has grown by 21 per cent.

Last year, there were 53,963 students in public and private French immersion schools, roughly 10 per cent of B.C.’s student population. According to the Education Ministry, 2,994 of those students have an independent education plan, meaning that nearly six per cent of French immersion students have been assessed as having some kind of special need. In comparison, 68,716, or 12 per cent of B.C. public school students had a special need in 2020-21.

That number would be incomplete, however, as not every child with complex needs has been assessed.

Tara’s experience with French immersion in B.C. is similar to Carroll’s. She’s also a nurse, and her son is in Grade 5 French immersion in the Comox Valley District. We’re using her first name only to protect her son’s privacy.

Although her son’s complex learning needs have been apparent since kindergarten, his school told Tara he needed one year of English language instruction before he would be assessed for special needs. That usually doesn’t happen until Grade 4.

But the process involves at least two assessments, which can mean months to years of delay, so students “end up potentially not getting the diagnoses they need until the end of Grade 5, Grade 6, and I’ve heard in some cases even later,” Tara said.

In an email, Sean Lamoureux, director of inclusive education for the Comox Valley School District, said there’s no set grade for assessing students for special needs. However, the district prefers to wait until late Grade 3 or Grade 4 as it finds the “best results” in this age group, he said.

When a student is assessed it is decided on a case-by-case basis, and “many factors are considered that encompass the whole child,” wrote Lamoureux, adding that since French immersion instruction is 100-per-cent French from kindergarten to Grade 3, students are often behind in their English until it becomes 80-per-cent French/20-per-cent English instruction in Grades 4 to 7.

“However, they catch up quickly,” he wrote.

Typically, Lamoureux said, a classroom teacher will notify the learning support teacher if a student is a candidate for an assessment, who then notifies the school-based team, which then provides a referral for the student to see the school psychologist for an assessment.

The first assessment determines whether a student is a candidate for a psychological assessment for special needs, which Lamoureux said helps “filter” students to determine who requires further special needs assessment.

Using two tests is not uncommon in B.C., Lamoureux said, adding the district relies on its school psychologists’ recommendations when deciding which assessments to use.

Decisions around assessments are made at the school district level, said an Education Ministry spokesperson. However, district decisions must align with the provincial “Special Education Services: A Manual of Policy, Procedures and Guidelines,” which doesn’t include information on when to assess students in elementary French immersion.

Tara intends to pay as much as $3,000 this year to have her son assessed by a private psychologist — on top of the $320 per month her family already pays for his private tutors.

Her conclusion? “Public education is not free.”

Tara’s son loves French immersion, and she wants him to have access to the developmental and cultural benefits of learning another language. But the amount of money and time her family has spent getting him support isn’t sustainable.

“I think this whole conversation about what schools are exclusionary and elitist is a larger conversation about the oppressive nature of accessing resources in our education system in general,” Tara said.

Help more accessible in English

Carroll’s son’s diagnoses trigger government funding for in-school support. But, as with all brick-and-mortar public schools in B.C., the money goes into a district pot to fund services for all its students with complex needs, meaning his access to support workers will be determined in part by the needs of other kids in his school.

Sophie Bergeron, president of the Association provinciale des professeurs d'immersion et du programme francophone, a specialist association of the B.C. teachers’ union, says the provincewide shortage of French educators and assistants means that adequate support isn’t always available for kids in French immersion.

Support services are provided on a needed basis, she said. In a school that offers both French immersion and the English stream (which is the case for most French immersion programs in B.C.), if most kids who need an education assistant are in the English stream, the school will likely get an education assistant who only speaks English.

851px version of AnitaCarroll.jpg
Anita Carroll, seen here with her son, said she believes French immersion schools push out students with complex needs by not providing them with adequate support. Photo by John Bonner.

Last year Carroll’s son did have access to a French-speaking education assistant for up to an hour a day, but at some point, they stopped coming to his classroom.

That’s not enough, Carroll says, so she’s spent $8,000 on testing and supports for her son, including a $50/hour tutor. Because her son has autism, Carroll has been partially reimbursed through the $6,000 she receives annually from the province for out-of-school therapies.

In an emailed statement, Mike Russell, director of communications at the Cowichan Valley School District, denied the district is unable to support French immersion students with special needs.

“Our programs of choice, such as our French immersion program, offer all the supports for diverse learners that they would find in any other school in our district,” he wrote.

Due to an increase in district spending, Russell added, the average funding for students with complex needs in the last five years has been 52 per cent above the base ministry funding, with an average $9 million from the province and $4.7 million from the district spent on kids with complex needs every year.

“Supports for diverse learners are determined by the needs of an individual learner so levels of supports remain the same regardless of whatever program or school a student is at. We actively encourage, and have, a diverse population at all our programs of choice,” he said.

Currently there are 15 elementary-level French immersion students in the Cowichan district with a special needs diagnosis or disability, representing about two per cent of students in the program. In comparison, eight per cent of all students in the district have a special needs diagnosis or disability.

In an email, a ministry spokesperson said that supports for kids with complex needs increased in the 2021-22 school year by $200 million over the 2016-17 school year, for a total of $664.4 million in supplemental funding.

“Nothing is more important than ensuring every child is supported to reach their full potential, and our government is committed to removing any barriers standing in their way,” the email reads. “We are committed to improving services for students after many years of underfunding in our school system.”

Bergeron, the president of the Association provinciale des professeurs d'immersion et du programme francophone, admits that because of the shortage of French-speaking education assistants, sometimes French immersion teachers will advise parents of kids with complex needs that they’d be better supported in the English stream. “But we don’t do this easily,” Bergeron said.

However, sometimes it is parents who insist on taking their children back to English classes.

“It’s almost a fight with the parents, saying, ‘Even if you move him or her to the English program, they’re still going to have issues, they’re still going to need support,’” Bergeron said. “But the parents, because they feel they cannot support them adequately in French, they decide to move them.”

Success is possible

Carroll isn’t just spending her money to support her son, but also her time. She and other parents of kids with complex needs in her district created a Cowichan Valley district chapter of PIE: Parents for Inclusive Education.

Partners in Education are grassroots parent groups that advocate for their respective school boards and the Education Ministry to increase support for students with complex needs.

Monthly meetings are open to all parents, but no matter who else shows up, Carroll, her fellow PIE co-founders, the head of the district’s parent advisory council and the associate superintendent are there, hashing out what can be done for students with complex needs.

There has been some success: struggling with just three education assistants this past school year, Carroll’s French immersion school now has four full-time education assistants. Now her son sees an education assistant for math help once a week, plus he sees the school’s learning assistance resource teacher about 30 minutes per week and the school counsellor once a week.

“At our school, we now have four education assistants starting in September, where two years ago we only had two,” said Carroll. “Which is huge. We’ve never had that many at our school.”

However, the school’s resource teacher, whose duties would include working one-on-one with kids with complex needs like Carroll’s son, has seen their hours at the school cut this year from two days to one day per week.

Carroll’s confidence that her son can succeed in French immersion comes from research. She cites Canadian education consultants like Shelley Moore and Nancy Wise who argue that success is possible for all kids in French immersion if they have adequate support.

“The widespread belief that French immersion is ‘suitable’ for some but not all learners serves as a barrier that restricts access to French immersion for some learners,” said Wise, a French immersion consultant based in Ontario, via email.

This includes students with complex needs, but also from low-income families or those whose first or only language is not English, she added.

Wise cites her own research as well as other experts in the French education field to back up her claims.

“More French-speaking learning resource teachers and educational assistants are needed to support students who are experiencing difficulty in the program,” Wise wrote. “Additionally, classroom teachers need more professional development opportunities to increase their preparedness to work with today’s more diverse French immersion student population.”

The former B.C. French immersion teacher who spoke to The Tyee agrees, adding that all teachers should be taught how to recognize and support students with learning disabilities and complex needs.

While some teacher education programs in B.C. include a mandatory introductory course on the concept of learning disabilities and complex needs, they say teacher candidates need a more in-depth education on the topic.

“I’m not sure that we’re there yet,” they said, adding that teachers who act as gatekeepers to the French immersion program are not trying to be malicious: they think they are helping kids avoid failure by telling parents to keep them out of French immersion.

“We all end up with kids with disabilities in our classes, and we need to understand how to meet their needs.”  [Tyee]

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