French instruction at Netivot HaTorah Day School, a co-ed Orthodox Zionist elementary school north of Toronto, will be significantly reduced starting in the next school year, despite parents’ concerns that the cuts will put students at a disadvantage in high school and in the workforce.
In a letter to parents last month, Rabbi Rafi Cashman, Netivot’s head of school, announced that French will be taught in Grade 6 and for half a year in Grade 7 next year. French will be optional in Grade 8, depending on enrolment. Currently, it is taught in grades 2 through 8.
In place of French, the school will offer art in the younger grades, a coding course in Grade 7 and a Jewish history class in Grade 8. At the moment, after Grade 1, students take gym and French, but no other specialties, such as art, drama or music.
The decision was made by a committee of two educators and a long-time parent who recognized the challenge of teaching French in a dual-language curriculum, Rabbi Cashman wrote.
“The rationale of this group was to address the relative weakness of the existing French program, structurally, as well as in practice, and the resulting negativity from students and parents, while also supporting French education (language and culture) as a school in the Canadian educational context,” Rabbi Cashman wrote.
With just under 300 hours of French instruction offered in grades 2 to 8, few students “have any degree of functional French language skills,” he wrote.
Some parents are disappointed that the school is reducing the hours devoted to French, rather than attempting to improve the way the subject is taught.
“Being bad at something important doesn’t mean you quit, it means you work on solutions,” parent Jonathan Parker wrote in an email to other parents that was shared with The CJN. “Another pedagogical motive for retaining French is that its removal cuts students off from a significant part of their history, the country and the world. Why would we opt in to that?”
Parents are also concerned that reducing French will limit their children’s options in high school and beyond.
“We want our kids to be competitive. Granted, they’re not taking French immersion, but if you get rid of it, you’re setting kids back,” said a parent who did not wish to be identified.
Being bad at something important doesn’t mean you quit.
– Jonathan Parker
The cuts to French programming put Netivot at odds with other day schools, some parents point out. At Associated Hebrew Schools, for example, students start taking French classes in Grade 2 and, by the time they’re in middle school, they’re taking 132 minutes of French every week, said Chaim Cutler, the school’s executive director.
Private schools in Ontario are not required to follow the guidelines set out by the Ministry of Education about how many hours of French instruction are offered. But students need one year of French in high school, in order to receive their Ontario Secondary School Diploma.
Netivot students will still be capable of taking applied French in high school, the email from Rabbi Cashman said. Applied courses are less rigorous than academic offerings.
Currently, Bnei Akiva Schools, where many Netivot graduates go for high school, places most students in academic French courses, said education director Hillel Rapp. Their high schools do not intend to alter their French programs, based on Netivot’s new direction, he said.
However, in an email, Rapp said that “it is not unusual for our offerings in French to vary from year to year, depending on the particular backgrounds, academic needs and interests of our students in that year.”
Parents are also concerned that Netivot has not shown that the programs replacing French rely on proven curricula. “To say we’re going to teach coding is very trendy,” said one parent. “Is there a curriculum? Is there a vision for it? Are we going to build a curriculum for grade 1 to 8 that gradually builds kids’ coding skills, or is it just a computer teacher walking in with iPads saying, ‘Here, play around for an hour a week?’ ”