Education

Back to the future

BRENDA BRANSWELL June 15 1998
Education

Back to the future

BRENDA BRANSWELL June 15 1998

Back to the future

Education

Students filing past Jeanne Zdyb in the cafeteria at Preville Elementary School in St-Lambert, Que., call out questions to their principal. Zdyb

answers them, switching easily between English and French. Many children in this unusual school on Montreal’s South Shore share the same ease in both languages, per-

haps because Preville is one of a few Quebec schools that offers three separate programs under the one roof: English, French immersion and French instruction. Many parents— anglophone and francophone —believe that this mix helps their children polish their second-language skills. But

Preville’s days as a distinct school are numbered—a casualty of the massive reorganization of Quebec’s school boards along linguistic rather than religious lines. After weeks of controversy, which saw some residents present a petition to St-Lambert city hall to get the school transferred to a local French board, the Quebec government came down with just that decision last month. The school’s 386 anglophone students will move out by 1999 at the latest. “It’s really a sad, sad thing,” laments Debbie Horrocks, whose son and daughter are enrolled in French immersion. “What we had

The Preville saga is one of the more fractious episodes in the historic makeover of Quebec’s school boards. By July 1, the province’s 159 religious boards will be re-

could have been a model for schools in this province.” Francophone parent Johanne Purcell echoes that thought: “It was really the ideal.”

Language rearranges Quebec’s schools

placed by 72 linguistic boards (60 francophone, nine anglophone and three aboriginal), saving the system an estimated $100 million in administrative costs. And while most educators hail linguistic boards as a logical move long overdue, no one describes it as a walk in the park. “It’s a mammoth under-

taking,” says Jeff Polenz, the head of the Quebec Association of School Boards, which represents the nine new anglophone boards.

The lengthy to-do list has included coming up with new board names, assigning staff, divvying up school properties and drawing up new bus routes. Simply finding an acceptable moniker proved frustrating for the Montreal-area Lester B. Pearson School Board. The anglophone board’s original choice for a name—the Lower Canada School Board—was rejected by Quebec’s commission in charge of formal

names, prompting another language debate among the talk-show types. But the reorganization process has been especially onerous for the South Shore School Board, which runs Preville, because its mixed-language schools complicated the task. Next month, the board gets a new name (the Riverside School Board) and loses its 5,000 francophone students. It will also have to shift at least 2,500 of its anglophone students to new schools next fall. David D’Aoust, the board’s directorgeneral, says: “I think we should have had two years to bring this in properly.”

Despite the time frame and some heated English-French battles over local schools, officials at Quebec’s school board associations maintain that the transition has been relatively smooth. The greatest test will come in the fall. Some observers say there is potential for conflict over religion because individual schools will determine whether they want to retain a Catholic or Protestant hue, or become neutral. And amalgamated rural boards, saddled with huge territories, face equally large logistical problems. The new Eastern Shores School Board with 1,700 English-speaking students in 17 schools covers the Gaspé Peninsula as well as the communities of Baie Comeau and Schefferville on the north side of the St. Lawrence River. “Every time you have a [regional] meeting,” says Stuart Richards, the board’s director of educational services, “it will cost two or three thousand dollars.”

Quebec schools must also grapple with another set of reforms being ushered in at the same time. Bill 180, passed last December, allows for greater autonomy of individual schools and gives parents greater decision-making power and a stronger voice in how their children are taught. The government maintains that both reforms are long overdue. But some, such as Ruth Rosenfield, the head of the Montreal Teachers Association, question the dizzying pace. “I think it’s demented that we’re making the two changes in the same time period,” she says.

With the school board transition a few weeks away, D’Aoust acknowledges that there are definite benefits to linguistic boards. For example, Catholic and Protestant anglophone schools will no longer compete for the same enrolment and the English community can share resources. The South Shore School Board opposed the transition, D’Aoust says, because it liked the shared, bilingual quality of their system. That’s the way many parents felt about Preville. Now, “it’s going back to what I grew up with,” says 39-year-old Horrocks. “The English walked on one side of the street and the French were on the other. And you never met, you never talked and you never played together.”

BRENDA BRANSWELL in St-Lambert