OJCS Announces $50,000 Investment in French Education

File this under “promises made; promises kept”.

We are thrilled to share that our school will be making a $50,000 investment to ensure an increasingly excellent French education, to grow the number of students who successfully transition into French immersion programs in Grade 9, and to increase the odds of their success once placed.  This comes directly from the hard work of our French Language Faculty, the changes we began this year as a result of beginning this conversation last year, the leadership of our Board and the generosity of our donors.  This is a great day for those who already know a Jewish day school education does not preclude an excellent French education; it is an even better day for those who want to believe it, but needed a little more than anecdotal evidence to go on.

If you are new to this conversation, I encourage you to read my blog post from last February which lays out a detailed history of French education in Ontario, how it impacts OJCS and what the state of affairs was like when we began this work last school year.

Here are a few reminders and updates:

We continue to acknowledge that small sample sizes make statistical analysis complicated.  We remain committed to annual surveys of our alumni and frequent check-ins with the high schools in our community.  We do know, for example, that 50% of the students who graduated OJCS last year from French Extended are currently in Grade 9 French Immersion in high school (the other 50% opted out).  They report being successful and having been adequately prepared.  It may not be statistically significant (this was not a large class), but it lines up with last year’s data and the ample anecdotal evidence we do have that OJCS students can and do successfully transition from “Extended” to “Immersion” in Grade 9.

Here is what we committed to for this school year:

  • Conversations with parents about their hopes and expectations for maximal French contact time will begin during the admissions process.  Students who may require additional support to place into “Extended” need to be identified early.
  • The selection process in Grade 3 will be more rigorous, begin earlier, come with more parental engagement, etc., so that students who do continue into “Extended” for Grades 4 and higher are even better prepared for Grade 9.
  • We will increase the rigor and immersive experience of what contact time we presently make available.  We need to squeeze every moment of immersive French possible.  This includes a philosophical shift in K-3 that raises the bar – rather than aim towards the middle and wait to see who rises up, we will aim towards immersion and stream those who struggle.
  • We adjusted our schedule to increase contact time with French.  Students in OJCS have more contact time with French in each grade (except K which was already frontloaded).

Here is how our French Language Faculty put it when we met with parents twice yesterday at our “French Q & A Sessions”:

Vivre en français à OJCS

  • At OJCS, the FSL (French as a second language) faculty has made a commitment to speak French with their students everywhere in the school, so if you walked through our hallways, you would hear us speaking French to our students, increasing the interaction and contact time with our students.
  • Our enhanced FSL program with its consolidated class time (blocks of periods), all within a trilingual school where the francophone culture is alive and regularly celebrated, produces students capable of successfully communicating and learning in French.
  • Students practice their language skills in various environments, such as on the playground, and during coaching on our various OJCS sports teams.
  • Our FSL faculty is committed to offering authentic OJCS learning experiences.

While we believe we are on a gradual path towards clarity around French outcomes and increased excellence in French education, we are also aware of how serious an issue this is for a meaningful percentage of our families.  We have also seen how the use of consultancy has jumpstarted innovation and growth at our school.  What we are announcing here is going to do for French what our other consultancies have done for OJCS – dramatically speed up the process of moving from good to great.

We have identified a few different consultancies that would provide OJCS with the following features:

  • One to two years of professional development for OJCS French Faculty from the same folk who train the Immersion and Francophone programs in the public boards, including multiple in-person observation and direct training.
  • Shareable tools for benchmarking and tracking individual students over time.
  • New and updated French curriculum.
  • Individualized paths forward for high achieving students from the OJCS “Extended” program to full Immersion programs at their next schools of choice.

The tools, the curriculum and the paths would be ours after the consultancy and would become part of the budget moving forward.

We are in the process of finalizing our consultancy and will share out additional information when confirmed.  Additionally (not part of the $50K), we are also committed to adding French Resource.  We feel this will bring much needed support not only for students who have IEPs, but for any student who struggles.  [Yes, we are committed to adding Hebrew Resource as well.]

We enjoyed the opportunity to share our progress and our plans with parents.  We appreciated the candor and the tough questions we were asked.  We are pleased to share it more widely here.  Interestingly, we heard similar feedback that we heard last year about three areas.  One we tried to do something about and couldn’t get it off the ground; two we need to pay even closer attention to…

  • There was a very positive response to the idea of OJCS offering French enrichment as part of an after school program and/or as part of a summer day camp experience.  We surveyed parents last year about it for this year and did not get a critical mass.  We will try again.
  • There was a strong feeling that using Grade 4 as our arbitrary split into “Core” and “Extended” is unnecessary and that we are missing an opportunity to increase the immersive exposure in Grades K-3 when it could potentially have even more value.  We addressed this issue this year with a philosophical shift (aiming higher), but we could also choose to address it structurally (actually streaming earlier).  This will be worth exploring through consultancy.
  • There remains a meaningful percentage of our families (particularly ones who are from and/or are familiar with the model in Montreal) who would like to see us offer a full immersion track, if not embrace a full immersion model.  Although our cultural context is different, we do have a responsibility to pay attention to these families.  We will continue to survey and assess this need; we will also try to better calculate the opportunity cost of not having it – who is not coming to OJCS (and, thus, not getting a Jewish day school education) because we can’t offer it.

This is where you come in.  We desperately want to know what you think…

…what questions did this answer for you?

…what questions did this raise for you?

…what do you want to know more about?

…what else do you want us to know?

We cannot encourage you more to email, comment or come in for a conversation.  We need all voices heard as we work towards clarifying and enhancing our French mission and vision – next year and in the years ahead.

Les Fichiers de Transparence: L’assemblée de Français

As promised, we held a “town hall” on Thursday, February 8th to share back the results of our investigations, thus far; to discuss what we currently believe to be true; and to sketch out next steps.  We were pleased by the turnout and with the candor and seriousness of the conversation (see more below).  We would be happy share out the entire slide deck from the “town hall” so that folks who were unable to attend can be in the know.  Please feel free to email me (j.mitzmacher@theojcs.ca) with your request.  What I would like to do here is walk you through the highlights and offer you the chance to add your voice to the conversation by commenting below.

A few caveats as prologue…

The spirit of this conversation is one of “transparency” – a value we have discussed in depth in prior posts.

You can read an earlier post for a more in-depth history of French education in Ottawa and at the OJCS.

Let’s restate the fundamental issue…

Unlike our Hebrew and Judaic standards, which are entirely our own to determine and whose outcomes are entirely ours to assess, our French standards come from the Ontario Ministry of Education and the schools our graduates attend perform assessments.  So why is this so confusing and chronically debated?

What does French currently look at OJCS?

K:   10/40 Periods in French

1-3:   6/40 Periods in French

4-5:   6/40 Periods in Core French & 8/40 Periods in Extended French

6-8:   6/45 Periods in Core French & 9/45 Periods in Extended French

What kinds of data collection are we doing to better understand the issue?

  • Grade 9 Alumni Surveys
  • Grade 12 Alumni Surveys
  • Conversation with SRB & Ashbury
  • Conversation with Knoxdale
  • Anecdotal Testimonials
  • Exit Interviews (pending)

What did we learn from the Grade 9 Alumni Survey?

74% of Grade 9 students were enrolled in Core French with an additional five students in Immersion and one in Extended French. Of the children enrolled in Extended or Immersion French, no parent reported they needed an extra tutor or extra assistance.

At this point in time, we can see of the six students taking more advanced French, there is no issue with them keeping up.

What did we learn from the Grade 12 Alumni Survey?

Fourteen respondents are attending a public high school in Ottawa, with the vast majority at SRB. One student is attending Ottawa Torah Institute.

Four students indicated they were in Extended French and another two in French Immersion. (This was before SRB dropped “Extended”. Those four “Extended” students are now either in “Core” or “Immersion”.) There was one respondent who did indicate they hired a French tutor to help with Extended French.

The rest of the students (44%) were in Core French.

What did we learn from our conversations with Sir Robert Borden High School?

  • Students are placed in Grade 9 as recommended by OJCS.
  • Some students experience a temporary culture shock transitioning from “Extended” to “Immersion”.
  • Some students see a temporary dip in their grades in Grade 9, but typically recover by Grade 10.
  • Many students come in “super strong”.

What did we learn from our conversations with Ashbury College?

  • “Marks in French are strong.”
  • 1/3 of OJCS students who go to Ashbury graduate with one of their two bilingual diplomas. (Anecdotally, we believe the other 2/3 self-select out, but more data collection will be needed.)

What did we learn from our conversations with Knoxdale Public School?

  • OJCS students who transition into Grade 4 for “middle immersion entry point” are well-prepared for success.
  • Grade 4 is an arbitrary entry point, susceptible to changing public school norms.
  • Students can be accepted into Knoxdale at any point and placed into immersion upon parental request.

What additional/ongoing data collection will be necessary to better refine our understanding of true French outcomes?

It will take additional years of data collection before our sample sizes will allow for more definitive conclusions.  Additional data points that we will collect include exit interviews (families who transition out prior to graduation), testimonials from alumni and alumni parents (we have plenty of positive, anecdotal evidence, but we need a uniform protocol for collection), and adjusting our parent survey data to better determine how many families these issues impact.  We also need to do a deeper dive into the details.  For example, not only how many students earn a bilingual certificate, but do they score well enough to succeed at the next level?

What do we presently believe to be true about French at OJCS?

  • We believe there is a path from here (OJCS Extended French) to there (Grade 9 French Immersion).  We believe we need to better illuminate that path, as well as being open to creating additional paths.
  • We believe that we have passionate, talented, capable, and responsive French teachers who are part of the solution.
  • We believe we need to be more transparent about what needs to be true during the year of transition to set (more) students up to be successful.
  • We believe we will need to collect more data over more years to better answer questions and address concerns.
  • We believe that for some families nothing short of full immersion will be satisfactory and we will have to meaningfully address what that means – for those families and for OJCS.

We believe we can make significant improvements to our current program, and plan to, beginning as soon as next year.

What can we do next year?

  1. Conversations with parents about their hopes and expectations for maximal French contact time need to begin during the admissions process.  Students who may require additional support to place into “Extended” need to be identified early.
  2. The selection process in Grade 3 will be more rigorous, begin earlier, come with more parental engagement, etc., so that students who do continue into “Extended” for Grades 4 and higher are even better prepared for Grade 9.
  3. We will increase the rigor and immersive experience of what contact time we presently make available.  We need to squeeze every moment of immersive French possible.
  4. We will provide additional extracurricular contact time with French through clubs, lunch, etc.
  5. We believe we will be able to adjust our schedule to increase contact time with French.  Stay tuned.

We had in attendance that night our full administration, our French department and a good mix of parents who represented different age groups, different views on the ultimate value of French education, but who demonstrated a shared sense of the issue’s importance, provided meaningfully constructive feedback and exhibited a genuine desire to partner with the school to get it right.

We took good notes from the serious conversation that followed the presentation and I have opened a GoogleDoc to track the feedback and recommendations that we hope continue to come in (see below).  Here are some highlights from that night’s conversation:

  • There was a strong feeling that using Grade 4 as our arbitrary split into “Core” and “Extended” is unnecessary and that we are missing an opportunity to increase the immersive exposure in Grades K-3 when it could potentially have even more value.
  • There was a very positive response to the idea of OJCS offering French enrichment as part of an after school program and/or as part of a summer day camp experience.  This seems like a no-brainer for us to jump on right away.
  • We have energized parents who bring a research background to the conversation and who are willing to help us craft better survey instruments and conduct more thorough analyses to address the issues raised above by way of data collection.
  • A Grade 4 OJCS “middle immersion entry point” may not be a crazy idea.

So.

This is where you come in.  We desperately want to know what you think…

…what questions did this answer for you?

…what questions did this raise for you?

…what do you want to more about?

…what else do you want us to know?

We cannot encourage you more to email, comment or come in for a conversation.  We need all voices heard as we work towards clarifying and enhancing our French mission and vision – next year and the years ahead.

By the way…if you like town halls (and you know you do!)…

Stay tuned for a Town Hall after Passover where will share back the results and the plans we’ve been working on to clarify and enhance the “J” in OJCS!

Les Fichiers de Transparence: Parlons français à OJCS

OK, I cheated.  My French has barely made it past, “Bonjour,” but I wanted to set the right tone for this conversation and asked for a translation.  You’ll forgive me for conducting this conversation about French in English, but this will sadly be one aspect of the job where I cannot lead by example.  At least not yet…

This blog post marks the third in a series of “Transparency Files” posts designed to lay out the significant conversations we are engaging in this year in order to become the best OJCS we can be. The first was about “transparency” itself and the kind of culture we are creating.  The second was about reimagining and clarifying our Jewish mission and vision.  [Quick update: We held our first Rabbinic Advisory Committee meeting this week.  Pulpit rabbis from across the spectrum participated.  The meeting was serious, engaging and meaningful.  I look forward to offering a more substantial update, including how other stakeholder groups will begin to launch their conversations, soon.)  Here, I want to lay out the beginning of a conversation about French so we can finally put to bed what either is or is not true about French at OJCS, its outcomes, and what it prepares you for, or not, for Grade Nine.

What I find most interesting about this conversation is how frustratingly frequent it has taken place in recent years despite how incredibly knowable the outcomes actually are.  Unlike our Hebrew and Judaic standards, which are entirely our own to determine and whose outcomes are entirely ours to assess, our French standards come from the Ontario Ministry of Education and the schools our graduates attend perform assessments.  So why is this so confusing and chronically debated?

I have spent some time learning a lot more about French education in Ottawa than I ever would have imagined and still have much more to do in order to be as authoritative as I will need to be as the conversation evolves.  But here is what I (think I) know…

Our current French studies program is built upon a public school model that increasingly no longer exists.  The majority of public schools in Ottawa used to operate three tracks for French: Core, Extended and Immersion. OJCS, as a Jewish day school with an entire Jewish Studies curriculum to manage – including a third language – reasonably adopted Core and Extended into its program. Over time, however, as public schools continued to feature greater and greater immersion, the middle track – Extended – began to be dropped.  More and more public schools (writ large) now only offer both a Core and an Immersion track, and there are more public schools who specialize in French immersion. “Extended” is ceasing to function as a meaningful distinction, at least in terms of how French functions in any of the next schools of choice. Graduates of OJCS’ Extended French program may soon only have two choices in high school – Core or Immersion.

And this leaves us with the critical question for families who view French fluency as defined by the ability to pass the bilingual exams in Grade Twelve: Does OJCS’ Extended French program prepare students to successfully transition into a high school’s French immersion track in Grade Nine?

And the answer to that question leaves us with the critical question for OJCS, if meeting the need for French fluency is non-negotiable for a critical mass of Jewish parents: What should OJCS do about it?

Let’s pause for a moment to name some things that feel important.

This is an important issue for the families for whom it is an important issue.  Without current survey data, it is hard to know exactly where to peg the number, but let’s assume it is significant enough to represent an existential threat to the school’s long-term viability.

Our current Core French program is exactly the same (at least in time allocated and curricular benchmarks) as all other schools, with the same outcomes, tracked in the same ways all the way through Grade Twelve.  Families for whom Core French is sufficient are presently having their needs met.

Our current Extended French program isn’t something to sneeze at! It is not an immersion program, but it is an immersive experience. Families for whom Extended French is sufficient are presently having their needs met.

The connection between Grade Four and French fluency is a function of the evolution of French immersion in Ottawa public schools. There are currently programs offering a “Middle Immersion” entry point at Grade Four.  [The other entry points are “Early” (Grade One) and “Late” (Grade Nine).]  There are no guarantees as educational pendulums continue to swing that those will continue to be the (only) entry points.  The fact that for some number of parents the Grade Four entry point has become their critical decision-making window is absolutely important, but not necessarily determinative.  Our responsibility is to be clear about our Grade Eight French outcomes to ensure our current and prospective families have all the options available for Grade Nine, including French immersion.

Our graduates begin their next schools of choice in the French program that we recommend them for.  If we recommend a student graduating out of our Extended French program for French immersion in Grade Nine, that student is in French immersion if they choose to.  That’s a fact.

Let’s return to our two critical questions.

Does OJCS’ Extended French program prepare students to successfully transition into a high school’s French Immersion track in Grade Nine?

Here is where data counts.  There is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that the answer to this question is “yes”.  I have read years’ worth of testimonials from graduates and have spoken with numerous parents whose kids did, in fact, successfully transition from our Extended French program to high school’s French immersion, stuck with it through Grade Twelve, and earned their bilingual certificate.  And yet, there is a persistent narrative that this cannot be true.  I have spoken with many current parents who share this belief.  They genuinely believe that if we don’t offer an apples-to-apples French immersion program, then you cannot, by definition, successfully function in a high school French immersion program.

So how can we find out?

By doing some research – both quantitative and qualitative.  We are going to survey our graduates in both Grades Nine and Twelve to see how many of the students we recommend for French immersion…

…opt to stay in French immersion.

…feel prepared to be successful in French immersion.

…are successful in French immersion.

…earn their bilingual certificate in Grade Twelve.

We are going to explore whether there are other key variables which may impact a successful path from here to there such as…

…coming from a French-speaking home.

…participation in French-langauge extracurricular activities.

…use of a French tutor either during their time at OJCS or in high school.

We have also begun direct conversations with high schools.  I have met with the heads of Sir Robert Borden High School and Ashbury College (to begin with) and they are providing us with data about our French outcomes.  I have meetings scheduled with a variety of other schools as well.

The bottom line is that this question is eminently answerable.  Our graduates are either capable (with or without conditions) of transitioning into French immersion in high school or they are not. They are either successfully prepared or they are not.  We can and will answer the question.

If it turns out that the answer is, “yes,” then we have a serious responsibility to improve our marketing.  Schools are only as good as the stories they tell and the stories told about them.  And right now the story of OJCS is that it lacks adequate French to achieve fluency with all that that means in Ottawa.  If that isn’t the story, then we better start telling the true story as loudly and as often as possible.

If it turns out the answer is, “no,” then we have a serious responsibility to revisit our school’s mission and vision.  There are French immersion Jewish day schools in Montreal, I’ve been to see a few.  If it turns out that we actually cannot provide adequate French to achieve fluency, then we better figure out what that means so we can be transparent with families about what you can and cannot expect from your OJCS education.  And we’ll have to decide what kinds of French programs we need to have in order to remain viable.

This is an urgent issue and we are addressing it with due urgency.

The research is ongoing and the deliverable is intended to be shared out in writing when complete and discussed in a Town Hall setting that we are looking to schedule in January/February for current Grades Two-Three families and any Francophone family for whom this is an important discussion.  Stay tuned.

In the meanwhile, we have an incredibly talented French department who pour their hearts and souls into our Core and Extended French programs.  They take great pride in their work and in the accomplishments of their graduates, as should we all.

Can OJCS answer the critical questions about its French outcomes? Will OJCS effectively share the answers to those questions with all its stakeholders?  Are current, former and prospective families invited to share their feedback with us as we do our work?

As they say…J’en mettrai ma main au feu!