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OCDSB program review aims to keep kids in schools closer to home, director says

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The director of education for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board says making sure elementary school students can attend classes close to home is an important part of making schooling in Ottawa more equitable.

The OCDSB launched an elementary program review this month to examine the six programs it offers — English with Core French, Middle French Immersion (MFI), Early French Immersion (EFI), Alternative, and Ottawa-Carleton Virtual — along with special education and English as a Second Language supports and services. The goal of the review, which isn't slated to be implemented until the fall of 2025, is to determine whether the current program model still serves the needs of the community.

Pino Buffone told Newstalk 580 CFRA's Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron on Wednesday that not all schools offer the same programs and services, which can affect equity of access.

"In some cases, students and their families are having to bypass the local school to get to another school to access a program that they're looking for. So we're taking a look at that on balance, all in the spirit of achievement, wellbeing and, of course equity, but also, as a large complex institution of public education, our effectiveness and efficiency in the business we run."

In a report dated April 2, 2024, the OCDSB says the school board has developed "a patchwork of school configurations and grade structures" as it has grown over the last 25 years.

"While the current program model has, over the past quarter century, served the needs of many in the community, we know that many others have been underserved. There is an immediate need to rethink what programming the District offers, how and where it is offered, whose needs are served, and how schools may be redesigned to better meet the needs of current and future generations," the report says.

"The driver here is that we understand that we want to make sure all of our students have equity of access, equity of opportunity, equity of lived experiences and, ultimately, equity of outcomes," Buffone said.

Transportation is one of the key issues that was identified. A board document says the number of school configurations and program offerings increases the number of students who need school buses or other student transportation.

"This issue is even more complex for students in Specialized Program Classes. The majority of these students are transported away from their community school - in some cases long distances," the document says. "These issues combined increase the need for small vehicle transportation (i.e., vans) which is a costlier service model. In the 2022-2023 school year, this cost was approximately $18,850,000. As provincial policy and funding for transportation tightens, the cost to the District will continue to increase."

Buffone wouldn't speak directly to the expenses, but said feedback the board has received indicates the importance of community-based schooling.

"The connection between home and school, where kids go to school, the connection in amongst communities is important and, right now, we've got students bypassing their community school to access a program one way or another and that's something that's been raised as a concern, not to mention some of the equity pieces."

Concerns about French immersion

Some concerns have been raised about how the board might change its French immersion programs.

The OCDSB offers two French immersion programs. Early French immersion starts in Grade 1 with 80 per cent French instruction per day, decreasing to 50 per cent by Grade 7. Middle French immersion starts in Grade 4, with 66 per cent French instruction, decreasing to 50 per cent by Grade 7.

French education is still offered in the board's other programs. Kindergarten is split 50/50 between English and French. The English program with core French and the alternative program includes 40 minutes of French education per day and the Ottawa-Carleton Virtual School is 50/50 English and French from Kindergarten to Grade 8.

Enrolment data from the OCDSB show 52 per cent of elementary-aged students in the district were enrolled in early French immersion in the 2022-23 school year, compared to 41 per cent for the English with core French program and 5 per cent for the middle French immersion program.

"Over the past three years, there has been a slight shift in the distribution of elementary enrolment, with English and Core French enrolment increasing and Early French Immersion enrolment decreasing," the report says.

Buffone says suggestions that the OCDSB could be cutting French education are misplaced, as the review is still in its early stages.

"Can't rule anything out because we're listening right now, but I can say we understand how important immersion programming has been for our district and we'll take that, of course, into consideration as we move forward because it's been a vibrant, important part of what we offer," Buffone said. "We, actually, in some cases, may be looking at really trying to provide more French for those students and school communities who don't have that option right now."

Buffone explained that the review, which examines all of the OCDSB's programs and not just French immersion, is still in the early community engagement phase. According to board documents, trustees will hold meetings in their respective zones in May, and a day for school engagement held across all schools in the district to involve students and families in the review process will be set aside in June. From there, the board will analyze the feedback over the summer.

Elected trustees will make the final decisions. Buffone says he hopes to have something to present to them by the end of the year. The OCDSB's timeline for this review shows new programs would be implemented in the fall of 2025, possibly through a phased in approach. The new programming will be monitored for any adjustments that need to be made.

"I'm really excited about this," said Buffone. "It's a great opportunity to support some of the strengths we have and address some of the areas for growth." 

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