A new school grows in the Comox Valley

I forgot about this school; I always thought it was for children of French parents but the article below sounds like it is for anyone that wants to “know more about the Francophone culture and language.” I am surprised the funds for the new school in 2011 came from the BC Ministry of Education. I believe it is just for children of French parents. I have a problem with this, why can’t children whose parents graduated from a French Immersion school send their children to a Francophone school if there isn’t a French Immersion school available in their community? Why is this? Do we not value inclusiveness? If we do, these children should be allowed to attend a Francophone school. It might help manage our resources better as well. Click here or on the pdf file to read the full article or an excerpt below.


The Comox Valley opens a K-12 school to serve the growing needs of students who are opting to know more about the Francophone culture and language.

The recent opening of école Au-coeur-de-l’île, a Francophone public school in the Comox Valley, embodied the expression pignon sur rue (we’re at the gate to the street; we’re established).

The program opened in the 1980s with 20 students at Airport School on the Comox military base and mainly served military families.

Since then, enrolment has grown and the school “has moved around quite a lot,” said Principal Stéphane LeBlanc. “It’s not that we didn’t like sharing, but it’s hard to forge an identity.”

Elementary and secondary students were housed separately until the new school opened in October 2011. The kindergarten to Grade 12 school now serves over 160 students. Two staff members, Carole Frappier (special education assistant) and Annick Floucault (kindergarten teacher), have been with the program from its early years.

The school is under the auspices of School District 93, the Conseil scolaire francophone. The CSF was created in 1996 to provide direction to Francophone programs across the province. It is responsible for 37 public francophone programs and schools in every part of B.C. and they follow the BC Ministry of Education curriculum.

“It’s the same, it’s just taught in French, and we provide the highest standard of French instruction,” said LeBlanc. The curriculum resources come from Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. Technology plays a big role as well.

The new school has all the proper wiring to provide interactive White Boards in every classroom and give every student in grades 4 and up access to laptop computers supplied by the school district. There are two class sets of iPad tablets for the four kindergarten to grade 3 classes.

LeBlanc, from New Brunswick, said, “Our teachers are from everywhere in the Francophone-speaking world and many of our students come from all over the world as well. Our school reflects that diversity.”

Many of the Canadian-born students bring varied experiences because they’ve been stationed with their families at military bases around the country. “We have a high turnover rate,” LeBlanc acknowledged, “but all schools in the Comox Valley go through that. The base is the economic motor of the community. We’re dependent on the base, but it’s thriving.”

Christine Beaudoin, with a son in Grade 10, was elected as a North Island CSF trustee last year. The board meets in Richmond once a month and much of its work is done through teleconferencing. She’s been a hard-working advocate for many years. “Francophone culture is very much a part of me,” she said. “I want to pass on my language and my cultural heritage to my son.”

CSF schools provide a bilingual education and Grade 12 students write the provincial English exam. Parents and students appreciate the advantages that a Dogwood certificate as well as a diploma in French provide. “It does give kids a leg up,” LeBlanc said.

The number of students continued to increase and there was growing interest in finding a stand-alone site in the region. In 2005, the Ministry of Education and CSF granted their approval for the idea, but it took six years to achieve it. In anticipation, the francophone school community chose a name for its future school, Au-coeur-de-l’île (heart of the island).

“Because we were renting, we were always having to make arrangements. When you don’t have a school of your own, you can’t have a true French experience,” she said. “We always had the leftovers, not the full meal. It was frustrating for the principal and the parents, but mainly for the students.”

In 2008, the Comox Valley School District was under pressure to close schools because of funding shortfalls and a reduction in enrolment. Allowing the CSF to purchase Cape Lazo School, which was housing the elementary school program, seemed like a good option.

But the timing wasn’t right. Parental resistance to the sale and closure of schools in District 71 was intensifying. Parents won an unprecedented court ruling that quashed the board decision’s to sell Cape Lazo. The judge criticized the public consultation process.

“There was misunderstanding and misperceptions,” Beaudoin explained.

There is a lot of misinformation about CSF programs. The board even offers a myths and reality section on its website (csf.bc.ca) with responses to unfounded criticism that it’s an exclusive private school system.

LeBlanc ensures that people who come to school are welcomed. “I will respond in whatever language I’m spoken or written to. I tell people, ‘We need to speak about whatever you want to talk about.’ The bottom line is what’s best for the kids. And I speak to the children only in French.”

In 2009, after the court case, the Ministry of Education agreed to provide funding to allow the CSF to build a new school at the district’s former Village Park Elementary School site. “We were thrilled,” Beaudoin said. The new building meets the highest seismic standards and received the Gold level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Motion detector lighting has been installed, but numerous windows reduce the need for indoor lighting. Geothermal radiant floor heating cuts down on energy costs and galvanized metal on the outside of the building is designed to withstand the rainy weather. A giant cistern under the school collects rainwater and all the toilets draw water from this source. Recycled concrete, steel and wood from the old building were used in the new construction.

The building has an open, flexible design with high ceilings, many large windows and interesting architecture. The outer wall of the gym is lined with huge windows overlooking a wooded area. Pods of double classrooms have glass sliding doors and can connect to project rooms. There are several large cubbies with big windows that invite quiet reading in small groups.

“One of my priorities is to create more community links [and] demystify what we’re all about,” LeBlanc said.

The school is equipped with a regulation-sized soccer field which is also available to the public. There is a Francophone preschool onsite and adults are invited to take French language classes.

“We are part of the community,” Beaudoin said. “Like other parents, I feel proud to drop off my son at a French school rather than at the back door of another school. Now, we don’t have to check with someone to see when we can have a Christmas concert.”

Like many small schools, the next issue to address is how to retain high school students through to graduation. Currently, there are 50 students in grades 7 to 12. Next year the school is hoping the number rises to 65.

“There are many reasons we have a retention problem,” said Beaudoin. “The Francophone community stopped believing we would have a school, so they enrolled their children in French immersion. When kids start in French immersion in grade 6, they won’t necessarily come back. It appears that many teenagers prefer humongous schools and parents don’t put their foot down. But students succeed in small classes. There’s a community sense. Yes, there are fewer potential friends, but a big school doesn’t necessarily provide more friends.

“But we won’t solve that problem in just a couple of years. We would have had many more students if we’d had our own school 30 years ago. It needs a good principal who listens to the community and we have a wonderful principal and we are very lucky. We have amazing teachers,” she said.

“The beauty is our kids are fluently bilingual. I’m not, but my son is. We have an amazing English teacher as well. Our kids are very lucky.”

A small school setting does have its pluses. “There are fantastic advantages from a learning perspective,” LeBlanc added. “Our senior classes run with a small number of students, almost like private tutorials. Students can get the extra attention they need to succeed.

“But we have don’t have sports teams.” Students who want to participate in team sports join the local Highland high school soccer and basketball teams “and they’re welcomed,” he said.

From the students’ perspective, the biggest downside is reduced socialization opportunities.

LeBlanc said the school staff ’s “Number 1 goal is to keep them here to Grade 12.” So this year students will spend two days at école Victor-Brodeur in Victoria attending the Valentine’s Day dance and auditing classes. A field trip to Bamfield Marine Station and a ski trip are also coming up.

In May, the school will be hosting the BC Francophone Games (four days of sports, art, culture and leadership events) and housing 150 high school students from across the province. “The school becomes a massive dorm,” said LeBlanc. The students in the grades 7 to 9 Leadership Class will be helping to organize the event.

The school has also invited students and staff from nearby Robb Road Elementary, a French immersion school, to attend a music concert and other cultural events.

“We have a very involved student council,” LeBlanc added. “The spirit and motivation is high and we hope to attract other Francophones to this school.”

The school was built for 300 students. “It will grow,” said Beaudoin. “We will have 300 eventually.”


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