Parents oppose adding another French Immersion class to Herbert Spencer

A New Westminster school district plan to add a second Early French Immersion (EFI) kindergarten class at Herbert Spencer elementary in the fall has spurred an online petition claiming the school is already overcrowded.

Shona Way is a Spencer parent who will have three children at the school starting in September, including one in French Immersion.

“It’s not a French-English thing. It’s a space thing,” said Way, the first of 144 who had signed the online petition as of Monday morning.

The school board was to discuss whether to add an Early French Immersion kindergarten class of 22 students at its meeting Tuesday.

District assistant superintendent Al Balanuik called it a “bubble class” that will work its way through the system because the district databases show there won’t be enough demand for a second class in subsequent years.

“There is sufficient demand to explore for 2011-12, but not add another stream for the future,” said Balanuik.

The school district said Spencer, with its two new modular buildings, can hold up to 506 students, and with 471 registered at its last official count it is still within capacity. A report to the board said the additional kindergarten class would bring the district average—which “is currently anticipated to be above the legal limit of 19”—to within legal limits.

Way said she has been told by school staff the current enrolment is 482. Way, who is a teacher in the Coquitlam school district, said with 22 divisions and only 35 blocks available per week, there is no way the school can find enough gymnasium time to meet the province’s regulation requiring an average of 30 minutes a day of exercise. Scheduling student time for the school’s computers, library, playground and music programs will create similar crunches, she said.

In addition, Way said there are two classrooms in the basement being used that are not big enough by provincial standards so it would be difficult to add another.

Complicating things further, she added, is the launch of all-day kindergarten in September because all the “lumps and bumps” of its introduction still need to be worked out.

“You need to figure out how it’s going to look. These kids need to be absorbed into a regular kindergarten,” said Way.

She’s also concerned a recent court ruling on class size and composition could also cause more class shuffling in the future.

“It was a very rushed decision. I don’t believe the planning has been sufficient. There’s just too many uncertainties to push this through.”

Although Spencer’s official capacity is slightly over 500, having that many didn’t work in the past, said Way.

“It’s been there but that doesn’t mean it was a quality learning experience.”

Lunch breaks and recesses had to be staggered and every nook and cranny of the school was utilized in less than ideal conditions

“Why is this year so pressing? There’s a waiting list every year. [Nearby F.W. Howay] has extra space, why not use the extra space there?”

Although anyone in the district can apply for French Immersion, Way said it’s frustrating because only three of the 22 in the second class are from within Spencer’s catchment. She pointed out some of those outside the catchment did not apply for EFI at John Robson, which will have two French kindergarten classes in the fall.

“Is it French you want or Herb Spencer?” she said of those families.

In comments Heidi Clarkson made at a May 12 public consultation meeting, the president of the New Westminster branch of Canadian Parents for French said adding 22 kids won’t have a big effect on the school.

“The enrolment at Spencer is decreasing and it’s the modulars that take up playground space,” said Clarkson. “People use a program of choice as a scapegoat. It’s a program that the board decided to offer and has been here 23 years, and there is now an obligation to strengthen the program.

“Every school in New Westminster has capacity issues. Every child living in our district needs to go to school and must be accommodated somewhere. It’s not just Spencer.”

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