Conceptual design of the new H.S. Grenda Middle School set to open next September. (Contributed)

Lake Country trustee lobbying for French Immersion at H.S. Grenda

School district staff report not supportive of program expansion

Just give it a chance.

That was the plea from Lake Country school trustee Amy Geistlinger in response to a school district staff recommendation not to include a French Immersion (FI) program at H.S. Grenda Middle School when it opens next fall.

A Central Okanagan School District staff report recommended Lake Country FI students continue to be enrolled at École Dr. Knox Middle School, suggesting a shuttle bus service from Grenda to Dr. Knox for FI students would help address transportation concerns, considered a detriment to more Lake Country parents enrolling their children in French Immersion.

Other points also raised was the difficulty of hiring French Immersion qualified teachers, and the lack of a population base in Lake Country to generate sufficient registration to offer a program on the same level as what is currently provided at École Dr. Knox.

At the planning and public facilities meeting on Wednesday (Dec. 2), Geistlinger argued the $237,200 cost to implement the Grenda FI program would create greater enrolment interest for parents in FI because their children would remain in the community rather than being bused to a Kelowna school.

READ MORE: School board approves enrolment plan for H.S. Grenda Middle School

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Geistlinger said although the program itself would cost $237,200 at Grenda, the total net cost for the school district would be reduced to $137,200 in the first year because a Grade 6 FI teacher from Ecole Peter Greer Elementary would no longer be needed there.

Essentially, she said, that teaching position would be moved from Peter Greer to H.S. Grenda, thus it wouldn’t be an additional cost to the school district, only to the program at Grenda.

“I would love to see it given a chance to succeed… I think a lot more parents would consider FI if it was offered in Lake Country and there is the opportunity for kids from other catchment areas, such as Rutland, to register which would free up space at KSS and OKM,” Geistlinger said.

She also questioned the bus service not being an annual expectation for parents in the face of potential service cutbacks in a given year.

“I don’t see that as an option offering stability if it’s not a sure thing for parents…that potentially every year they would have to come back to the board and fight for it,” she said.

Geistlinger noted French Immersion is not related to how many French-speaking families live in a community, a factor cited in the staff report.

“People who are French-speaking send their kids to Francophone schools. This is about English speaking parents who want to provide their kids with a French Immersion leaning option,” she said.

“I would love to see it given a chance to succeed… I think a lot more parents would consider FI if it was offered in Lake Country and there is the opportunity for kids from other catchment areas, such as Rutland, to register which would free up space at KSS and OKM.”

She also noted the huge emphasis placed on providing $125,000 each for new playgrounds at several local schools this year, which is further supplemented with fundraising efforts of about $50,000 for each of them to a universally accessible standard.

Geistlinger raised that point to illustrate the cost of one playground is less than what it would cost to introduce French Immersion to Grenda school, citing how it is not a fiscally unrealistic goal.

“I feel we could make it work if we really want to,” she said.

Ryan Stierman, school district secretary-treasurer/CFO, the Lake Country FI program currently has 23 students attending Dr. Knox from Lake Country and an average of 22 FI students per grade at École Peter Greer Elementary. In comparison, École George Pringle Elementary in West Kelowna has an average of 41 FI students per grade.

“Due to the lower numbers to draw from, even at the highest level of participation in French Immersion in the district, a Lake Country Middle School program would continue to have a program with significantly lower numbers than the programs in other communities,” the staff report said.

Kevin Kaardal, school district superintendent/CEO, added Lake Country’s population presents a basic challenge to matching registration rates on the Westside or central Kelowna, and in turn places limitations on offering a comparable FI program to other École middle schools in the district.

Stierman said the shuttle service would be cost-neutral because student busing fees would cover the costs with an FI enrolment of 30-34 students.

“It would be a 13.6-kilometre distance ride, about a 15-minute trip, compared to the hour and a half option on BC Transit that requires transfers at two transit interchanges,” Stierman said.

Trustee Chantelle Desrosiers, chair of the planning and facilities committee, said Grenda school offers something unique currently in the school district – space.

“We don’t have extra space (in many schools) right now and that is a sad reality. I would rather see money put into program resources and teachers rather than to add more portables,” Desrosiers said.

Geistlinger encouraged parents to voice their support for FI being added to Grenda before the school board meeting on Dec. 9.

While all trustees participated in the committee meeting, the committee has only three voting trustee members – Rolli Cacchioni and Lee-Ann Teade and Desrosiers.

Cacchioni and Teade voted for the charter bus option, while Desrosiers supported the Grenda option.

All trustees will vote on the recommendation at the Dec. 9 board meeting.