If the main recommendations of the French Second Language Commission are adopted, it will be the biggest change to FSL programming in the province since early immersion was introduced in the mid-1970s.

The elementary school system would be completely revamped, with early immersion removed and all students following the same program until the end of Grade 5.

No French would be taught until Grade 5, when all students would take the intensive French program.

Students wouldn’t split into two groups until Grade 6, when parents could decide to have them pursue late immersion or continue on with an enhanced Core program.

As Dorothy White read through the report yesterday, she divided a sheet of paper into two columns — one topped with a happy face, the other with a sad face.

“I have mixed feelings,” says the Université de Moncton professor and former FSL supervisor for District 2. “I am sad as I have worked all my professional career in immersion and as an FSL teacher. I have done Core French, intensive French and immersion, so I can just imagine what our early immersion teachers are feeling today. They must be very sad in their hearts to see a program they have loved and been passionate about taken away.

“On the other hand, I understand why this change has come about. To me, there is nothing wrong with change, provided it is in the right direction. It takes a lot of courage to release an early immersion program.”

Under the happy face, White lists the recommendations that all students be assessed to determine their ability in their second language and that French be mandatory through Grade 12, instead of Grade 10.

Under the sad face is parents losing the choice to have their children start learning French at an early age, but she is practical about it.

“We can’t have it all. It is costly to operate three programs,” she says. “We’ll just try to achieve our targets in a different way.”

Bobby O’Keefe, a senior policy analyst with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), says it is good to see recommendations based on real results of existing programs.

“The important thing is to ensure that they are looking at the information on the actual results of those programs rather than, ‘It has always been here and we need to keep it going,’ or that people have a feeling that is what works,” he says. “If the information on the results of those programs says no, that is not the case, I think that deserves a serious look and should be weighed ahead of any other anecdotal evidence.”

After years of being told early immersion offers children the best chance at learning their second language, the question no doubt foremost in most parents’ minds is how well late immersion is going to work in its place.

Every second year the province tests a sample of Grade 10 students, 10 per cent from each program, to determine whether or not students are meeting the program goals.

The most recent results, from the 2005-2006 school year, show more early immersion students functioning at a higher level.

Of the 108 early immersion students interviewed, 43.5 per cent were at the intermediate level, 44.4 per cent were at intermediate plus, and 5.6 per cent rated advanced.

In late immersion, 55.6 per cent of the 81 students tested were at the intermediate level, 21 per cent were at intermediate plus, and 1.2 per cent were advanced.

Only 6.5 per cent of early immersion students scored lower than intermediate, while 22.2 per cent of late immersion students failed to achieve even that minimum level of language proficiency, where one is able to manage in most common social situations, but likely would have difficulty in work or school settings.

“Research does show… the way that young students learn, they are more spontaneous, they are less afraid, they risk more, they pick up more on accents,” White says. “The difference between late immersion and early immersion is the early immersion speech is closer to that of a francophone. Maybe not the syntax, but the accent.

“They also had five extra years, so those that stayed in, they were strong students.”

Early immersion students are also better at understanding more complex text.

White says middle school students are often a little shyer about making mistakes and thus a little more reticent about practicing the language.

“But I have seen students in late immersion who have done tremendously well,” she says. “And that extra year of intensive French is going to contribute to make stronger students who enter the late immersion program.”

One of things AIMS is constantly advocating for is measuring results and using that data to drive change, so O’Keefe is pleased to see the recommendation that all students be assessed to measure their achievement.

The current assessment at the end of Grade 12 is voluntary, so the province does not have a very good picture of how all of its students are faring.

Still, there are few who would question the commission’s findings that the province’s FSL programming is not living up to its promise.

The majority of Core French students are leaving high school still unable to carry on a basic conversation, while only a handful of late and early immersion students are meeting the targets laid out for their programs.

White says one of the challenges is the lack of language competency among teachers.

“Right now we are obtaining poor results partly because of the trained personnel we have, particularly in areas where the francophone population is not very high,” she says. “They are having problems finding bilingual teachers who can meet the language competency requirement.”

The commission recommends all FSL teachers be at the superior level on the province’s oral proficiency scale, the highest level attainable.

But saying doesn’t make it so.

Immersion teachers are currently required to speak at a superior level, while advanced plus is considered adequate to teach Core French and the province is already struggling to meet those requirements.

Bringing everyone up to snuff is going to require mass training.

“If we don’t (do so), the change won’t be any better,” White says.

She also sees a looming staffing challenge if the recommendation to allow schools the option of offering math and science in French or English is adopted.

“They can barely find teachers now to teach math in French,” she says. “It will be difficult to meet that part of the recommendation.”

In the end, it appears the commission has gone with the utilitarian philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number in choosing late immersion over early.

Early immersion does not serve all children well — the commissioners note boys in particular do not always succeed in trying to learn a second language early on — and there are logistical and economic issues to be considered, with the lack of qualified staff and only so many dollars to devote to FSL programming.

The question now is whether this approach is the right one, and White says there’s no way to know that for sure.

“I would say to the fearful this drastic change in second language programs at first can appear threatening because there is the possibility that the results may get worse,” she says. “Do we know for sure this is the right way to go? This is what I ask myself, but, to the hopeful, and I am among that group, I am hopeful things will get better and if we don’t give it the chance, we’ll never know.”

White is putting her confidence in the commissioners, in Education Minister Kelly Lamrock and in Premier Shawn Graham, trusting they have done their homework and are basing their decision on clear information.

If Lamrock decides to move forward with the recommendations, it is yet unknown whether they would take effect as early as next September, though Lamrock seemed to hint they might in talking with reporters last week.

“If there are going to be any changes for the upcoming school year, people have to know very soon,” he said.

If he does decide to move ahead that quickly, it will mean a logistical tangle for school districts as they try to train teachers to deliver the intensive French program and redistribute long-time early immersion teachers.