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Parents outraged over new Quebec homeschooling rules

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Organized baseball is an extracurricular activity of the Limmud Centre. Play is non-competitive and aimed at building skills.

Stiffer rules on homeschooling that are set to come into effect on July 1 have been met with outrage among many parents of the estimated 5,000 children in Quebec who have chosen this educational option.

They include families of the 2,000 children from Hasidic and other haredi communities who are being homeschooled in the province’s curriculum, under an arrangement made three years ago between the Education Ministry and the English Montreal School Board, and later the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, as well.

The children, mostly boys, continue to go to their community schools, where they are instructed mainly in religious studies.

But Devorah Feldman, head of a homeschooling support program for boys in the Lubavitch Hasidic community, is confident the new regulations will allow “alternative education” like hers to continue to flourish.

She founded the Limmud Centre in 2015, specifically to supplement the secular education of students attending the Rabbinical College of Canada, the Lubavitcher yeshivah. Limmud is a private, independent entity that’s not affiliated with the yeshivah, she stressed.

It has received grants from Federation CJA and the Jewish Community Foundation of Montreal, and received an award for excellence in community programming from the Federation on June 17.

Now completing its fourth year, the centre serves close to 70 boys in kindergarten through Grade 8.

The students come after school to the nearby centre four days a week for an hour of tutorials in compulsory subjects, and the parents continue the schooling at home.

The ultimate goal is to enable them to write the provincial matriculation exams and obtain a high school diploma.

Extracurricular activities added in the past year include baseball and hockey coached by members of the Concordia Stingers, as well as robotics.

The new homeschooling regulations were introduced by Education Minister Jean-François Roberge on March 27, and because that was the day before the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) tabled its secularism legislation, it has received little notice beyond those most affected.

“All children in Quebec are entitled to the same opportunities to succeed, and those receiving homeschooling should not be an exception,” Roberge said at the time.

Critics say requiring homeschooling to be more in line with regular school runs counter to the very raison d’être of educating children at home according to individual needs.

The CAQ’s rules further beef up the previous Liberal government’s Bill 144, which came into effect in 2018 and was also aimed at keeping closer tabs on homeschooled children. It made annual learning plans for each child mandatory and strengthened the government’s powers to ensure all children up to age 16 are in a recognized school program.

The CAQ, which has long railed against so-called illegal religious schools, did not feel the bill went far enough.

The CAQ is now adding minimal teaching requirements in French, English, mathematics, science and technology, among other subjects. What has upset parents most is that students in Grade 4 and above will have to take the Education Ministry’s standardized tests.

Until now, the province has allowed parents to use a variety of evaluation methods to measure progress.

Feldman does not agree with this policy. A “portfolio-based evaluation” has been Limmud’s favoured means of judging how well the kids are doing, at least for the younger grades. Starting in Grade 6, the students are slowly acclimated to exam writing.

“If they are being taught through an alternative lens, standardized exams make no sense,” she said. “But our attitude has always been to do what is required by the law, and we will adjust.”

READ: FAYE ROSENBERG-COHEN: EXPANDING LIMMUD

The Limmud Centre is one of six homeschooling programs that are recognized by the Education Ministry as an “external source,” which is an endorsement of its credentials. This year, it received a grant for the development of new frameworks for homeschooling in Quebec.

Feldman, who was trained as a social worker, sat on the advisory panel on homeschooling that was created by former education minister Sébastien Proulx.

She describes Limmud as “an alternative approach to mainstream education, enabling its students to complete the mandated Quebec education without compromising their religious education and identity.” It has developed all its own cross-curricular materials and does not use ministry texts.

While it does not offer religious studies, everything it teaches is in line with Orthodox belief. Science instruction, for example, is rooted in the belief that God created the world. The majority of the teachers are from the Lubavitch community.

Next year, Limmud will add Grade 9 classes and help prepare Grade 10 students for their first matriculation exams, she said.

Limmud was recently awarded a grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, so that researchers from the Université de Montréal and the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières can document the effectiveness of its educational model. “While the Limmud Centre model fills a distinct need in the Lubavitch community, it also offers an effective and specialized alternative to mainstream schooling for anyone interested in the homeschooling experience,” Feldman said.

Among the many detractors of the new law is the Jewish Association for Homeschooling, which represents those parents in the public school board-supervised programs.

The changes brought in by Bill 144 last September are already strict enough, said its spokesperson, Abraham Eckstein.

“All (these new regulations) do is make life more difficult for parents who want to comply with the law,” he said. The association had asked for a three-year freeze on the implementation of the new rules.

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