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'Be a global citizen': French immersion program celebrating 50 years in Calgary

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The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the French Immersion Program.

Cindy Chin, the CBE's French learning leader, says the French Immersion Program is offered to all Calgarians with or without any knowledge of the French language.

"French immersion is for those that maybe have a little bit of French," she said. "Those that already speak two languages or three languages at home, we welcome everybody into our programs."

Chin says the CBE also hosts Spanish-bilingual, Mandarin-bilingual and German classes, but it all started with French immersion in the fall of 1973.

McDougall School in central Calgary was the first with its two Grade 1 classes. Back then, they spent half their time in French and the other half in English, whereas today 100 per cent of Grade 1 instruction is in French.

Carma Cornea, the principal of Dr. E.P. Scarlett High School, says this year some of the Grade 12 students mentored the Grade 3 students who all benefited from the interaction.

"It's an opportunity for (the Grade 12 students) to develop leadership, be a chance to be someone that kids look up to," she said.

"And role model for them just what it means to be a student here at our school, but also to be a global citizen and to be a French immersion student."

Cornea says it's a special opportunity for the grade three students to visit the high school they'll be attending. And while it's a 50th-anniversary event, the school board is looking at making the mentorship program permanent.

"It's great to have the little kids come because they can see where they're going to go one day, and we want to tour them around the school and see different parts of it," she said. "So high school is something that they'll really look forward to."

The school board has several activities planned to mark the milestone

On Tuesday, Grade 3 students from Sundance, Janet Johnstone, Sam Livingston and Chinook Park schools filled boxes with items that are important to them and brought them to Dr. E.P. Scarlet High School where they'll be placed into a time capsule for seven years.

Those same students will be starting Grade 10 and will get to see what's been preserved.

Today the French Immersion Program has grown from two Grade 1 classes in a single school to more than 9,700 students in 24 Calgary schools.

Madison Zoback is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Calgary's department of biology. She spoke to the eight-year-olds about her school career and how she's benefitted from learning French.

"I'm still using it because I have a friend I met during an exchange in Grade 9 and we still talk often on text message and she lives in France," she said.

"I felt that it took a lot more to learn the second language, we did English, and as well as French, we took French in math and social studies so we definitely had to put a little bit more time into those subjects."

Zoback doesn't use her French skills every day but says it comes in handy when she's on vacation.

"I've had the opportunity to travel around the world," she said. "And every single time I swear, often I meet people from totally different walks of life and totally different backgrounds and I've connected with them because a lot of them do speak French."

Jacob Remple is one of more than 200 Grade 3 students at the event and says he already knows some Spanish in addition to his French studies.

"My parents just wanted me to learn a second language because it can help you learn other languages when you're older," he said.

Leigh Dewalt is in Grade 12 at Dr. E.P. Scarlett High School and mentors Grade 3 students including Remple.

"I personally just wanted to see that next generation and kind of legacy I would be leaving behind and who will take up that role in the future," he said.

"Even if I don't use my French to communicate, I think it's helped me develop my brain in different ways that will let me overcome challenges and also lets me look at the world in different ways."

The CBE is hosting a gala in May to celebrate the parents, alumni, current staff and retirees who built the French Immersion Program that’s proven a success over the years. Advocates hope the program will continue to grow over the next 50 years.

Learn more about French Immersion on the CBE’s website.

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