Students in Kateri School’s first French immersion class will be graduating from elementary school on June 19. (Jessica Deer, The Eastern Door)
Over a hundred students will be graduating from Kahnawake schools this month, including 12 students who will historically be the first graduating French immersion class at Kateri School.
“They’ve come a really long way and are actually fluent in speaking. It’s exciting to send them off and know that they’re going to do well,” said Mariann Housego, one of the two grade five/six French immersion teachers.
Housego’s mother, Marie-Claude Routhier, was the class’ kindergarten teacher seven years ago.
“I think they have progressed very well. Even after the first year in kindergarten, I could see their comprehension of French being very good,” she said.
“Right now, the grade six students are completely bilingual in terms of understanding and speaking French. That’s pretty good progress.”
Originally launched as a three-year pilot project, it began in the 2011-2012 school year based on parent consultation.
“It comes from needs expressed from parents who wanted to have more French, but to stay in the community having the cultural aspect, instead of going outside,” said Dominique Janvier, the French consultant/coordinator at the Kahnawake Education Center.
“Right now, we have one French immersion class for each grade, but we look at the parents, what they ask, and it looks like a good program to keep going.”
Ashley Norton’s 12-year-old son Ronan is a part of the graduating class.
“When he was going into nursery, I was at Dawson College at the time, so I was struggling myself with French. I had to take extra tutoring, and I thought it was a good opportunity for him to get into that so he wouldn’t struggle as he goes on in his schooling,” said Norton.
Norton, who is alumna of Kateri, feels the program has been effective for her son, who will be going to Kahnawake Survival School in the fall.
“It’s really helped him in all years from Kindergarten up until now,” she said.
“There’s this attitude in town if you speak French, you’re a Frenchmen. It’s hard to say if he’s just being shy or if he’s pretending he doesn’t know. But I know for a fact that in the classroom, he’s using it because he gets good grades.”
Just over one third of the student population is now enrolled in French immersion from Kindergarten through grade six, with the lower grades averaging around 16 students per class.
“It’s the best overall option that’’ available. It’s in the community, it offers the tools needed for off-rez jobs/life. It’s too bad this can’t continue here through high school,” said Donald Phillips.
His daughter Brynn, in grade four of the program, transferred to Kateri two years ago from a school outside of Kahnawake.
“It’s been really good, great staff there. They are a bit too lax in the French part though, it should be more intensive,” he said.
“Her previous school was completely French. It seems like she has grown less comfortable speaking in French since most her teachers will speak to the kids in English.”
Like all curriculum throughout Kahnawake Education Center schools, tsi niionkwarihò:tens, a Kanien’kehá:ka-based curriculum, is at the heart of the program.
“We research as much as possible, we ask people in the school, and then we focused a lot this year on writing and translating a lot of documents and creating units in French,” said Acacia Prophet, the other grade five/six French immersion teacher.
This year, the students participated in the Quebec Aboriginal Science Fair, robotics competitions, and were taught units on lacrosse, wampum belts, traditional government, and had new culturally-relevant reading material in French.
“It’s a big priority for us, we want them to be able to be reading stories that reflect them,” said Prophet.
“We bought books too, last summer, that were specifically leveled French books that follow our leveled reading programs but are Indigenous-based. Mariann worked hard to find that series of books, so that the kids are reading stories that are relevant, modern and traditional, and they love it.”