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B.C.’s francophone schools the fastest-growing in the province, along with Surrey

May 23rd, 2012 · 8 Comments

Many school districts in the province are having to close schools. Few are building. One is Surrey. The other is B.C.’s francophone school board, which currently operates 35 schools around the province, from Prince George to Revelstoke (as of this fall) to Victoria to Vancouver.

Their rapid growth means they’re in negotiations with the city for a site at the Olympic Village, which Premier Christy Clark announced the funding for last fall, along with efforts to find a new site for a fourth elementary school on the city’s west side, improvements to the school in Port Coquitlam, and plans for new schools in Victoria and Revelstoke.

Contrary to what many might think, the system is not just attracting Quebeckers or francophones from New Brunswick. It’s also become a magnet for immigrants from the many countries around the world (many former colonies) that use French as an official language. There are about 70 second languages among the school population.

My story here explores this phenomenon a little more.

While many B.C. school boards are struggling with declining enrolments and school closings, one is booming. Its student population has almost tripled in 15 years and it’s looking to find or build new schools across the province.

No, the boom is not among religious schools or private schools for the children of the well-off. It’s in the public francophone school system, which provides education for students who qualify, under the Canadian Charter of Rights, to receive their education in French.

There hasn’t been an unusual increase in French speakers coming to the province. Instead, francophone families in B.C. are being pitched energetically by the Conseil Scolaire Francophone de la Colombie Britannique about the advantages the board offers. Those include one laptop per student, higher than average graduation rates, free bus service up to Grade 8, and, for a decade before the rest of the province caught up, all-day kindergarten .

“We have been fairly aggressive in promoting the program,” said Mario Cyr, the French school board’s superintendent. “We are in a competition. We realize that.”

The board benefits from extra federal funding and an anomaly in the provincial school funding formula – one that provides school districts with additional money based on how far their schools are from the board office – to offer a little more.

In the 2010/2011 school year, for example, the francophone system, with a board office in Richmond and schools that range from Prince George to Revelstoke, had $68-million to serve its 4,602 students. A rural school district with a similar size student body, Kootenay Lake, got $49-million in funding for its 4,792 students for 2011/12.

Besides the expected children of families originally from Quebec, New Brunswick and France, schools also include many French-speaking immigrants from around the world.

Parents such as Coquitlam residents Catherine and Nathanael Lisimaque will send their son Josué to kindergarten at the École des Pionniers in Port Coquitlam this fall.

But the board also gets many students like Kamila Stit, whose Algerian-born family speaks French at home, and Celly Manirakoze, originally from Burundi.

A thousand of the francophone system’s students are in Vancouver, where the French board is going through lengthy negotiations with the city to build a new elementary school near the Olympic village, as well as looking for space to move into or build on the west side.

That will double the number of existing francophone elementary schools in the city, which now include École Anne Hébert in the southeast corner and École Rose-des-vents on the west side, 100 students over-capacity.

The popularity of the francophone school system, which started with one small school near Victoria’s Esquimalt military base in 1973, has not come without its trials.

Since the francophone system came into being in 1996, the board has been embroiled in three lawsuits. It has been sued by anglophone parents claiming they had a right to get in because their children went to French-language private schools at some point (the parents lost). It is currently being sued by parents at École Rose-des-vents because of the overcrowding, and is in turn suing the provincial government, claiming it is not getting enough money to provide education of the same quality that anglophone students in the province get.

The board is routinely besieged by anglophone parents demanding to have their children admitted because they believe it’s their right.

For those who qualify, though, it’s a unique experience.

“Throughout the years, we’ve had many of the same teachers and you start to get really comfortable,” Ms. Manirakoze said. “And all the other students, you’ve been with for a long time.”

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