Photo by Jean-François Desmarais

By Julie Barlow

Who would have believed a single sheet of yellow paper could throw life into such havoc?

On March 21st, my daughters brought a note home saying their school, Nesbitt Elementary, was in “consideration” for closure.

I didn’t fall for the gentle terminology. I knew it was serious.

I wasn’t alone. In the days that followed, a small group of shocked and mystified parents got together and sprung into action. We created a blog, a Facebook page, started an online petition, filmed three short videos about the school, opened a Twitter account and started lobbying the media (needless to say, we didn’t sleep much).

The Nesbitt “resistance team” made quite a splash. Five days after the campaign started, we were interviewed by major news media outlets in French and English. We were on the front page of the Montreal Gazette. We had collected 4000 signatures.

But the display of solidarity was futile. On March 30th, the English Montreal School Board’s (EMSB) commissioners voted to keep Nesbitt on the list of schools being “considered” for closure. There was no debate prior to the vote.

We soon understood what was going on. Commissioners vote in bloc and the decision to keep Nesbitt on the chopping bloc was made before the meeting. Nesbitt was on the losing team.


The Demise of English Education in Quebec

The decision to close schools did not come out of the blue. The Nesbitt story casts a light on a little known phenomenon that might surprise anyone living outside Quebec: while the English language is not suffering here, English-language education is biting the dust.

Enrolment in Quebec’s English-language schools has been declining sharply for several decades now. The principal reason is of course, Quebec’s Law 101 (The Charter of the French Language, passed in 1977) that prohibits francophones and new immigrants from sending their kids to English schools. Only kids with a parent educated in English, in Canada, have access to English public schools in Quebec.

But the law is only one factor.

The other is parents’ common sense. To work in Quebec, French is a must. Without French, kids from Quebec are likely to make their lives in Toronto or Vancouver, New York or somewhere else. To ensure kids’ future in Quebec, parents send them to French schools. They are confident their kids will learn English at home.

The English language school board is convinced the trend will continue and is throwing in the towel, practically without a battle. The scenario of possible school closures is based on projected enrolment declines, starting with schools that already have less than 200 students.


French Immersion on the Rise

Yet with 426 students, Nesbitt school is one of the largest schools in the English system. More importantly, Nesbitt offers the main thing that keeps parents in the English school system: French immersion. Nesbitt’s 30 year-old French immersion program churns out perfectly bilingual 12 year-olds.

Thirty years ago, just on the heels of Law 101, Nesbitt was the first school in East Montreal to introduce French immersion. The program has been attracting kids from all over Montreal ever since. The success rate is high and kids learn in an authentic francophone environment – the East Montreal neighbourhood where the school is situated is almost entirely French-speaking.

In a way, Nesbitt is a victim of its success. Over the last decade, other English schools woke up and realized that French immersion was the only thing that could keep them alive. The EMSB reasoned it could keep a few of these smaller schools alive if it closed Nesbitt and spread our students around.


Closing Nesbitt Harms French Immersion

School Commissioners were either unaware, or simply ignored the fact closing Nesbitt would create a huge hole in the middle of the island of Montreal where there would be no French immersion, nor a core English program.

Nesbitt parents think this is insane. Parents with kids in French immersion (two-thirds of the school)are not likely to put their kids on hour-long bus commutes to other French immersion programs. They will more likely send their kids to a French school.


French-speakers Support Nesbitt

Which brings me to the most interesting part of the story. In a surprising twist of events, Nesbitt is actually getting support from French-speakers. Why? First, because they are our neighbours in East Montreal. Second, because they agree it’s crazy to close a big, successful school. And third, because Nesbitt offers high quality French language instruction. Who in Quebec would knock that?

City Hall opposition leader Louise Harel recently wrote us a letter of support praising our school for its success.

Our provincial MNA, Louise Beaudoin, (who recently resigned from the Parti Québécois), told us we were “doing more than the customer asked for” by helping turn anglophones into well-educated francophones.

These are two established Quebec separatists talking!

Our story was covered by Radio-Canada, TVA, the daily Le Devoir, our local paper Le Journal de Rosemont. We were on the front page of La Presse … all French outlets.


The Struggle Continues

The havoc that single sheet of yellow paper created in my life is far from over. Since the March 30 vote, the “Nesbitt resistance” has been working on phase two of the Save Nesbitt project: gathering political support at all levels to keep the school open, and preparing a “brief” showing why Nesbitt should stay open.

The final vote on Nesbitt’s fate will take place in January 2012. Until then, the Nesbitt community is carrying on the battle to preserve a rare jewel of a school that produces perfectly bilingual Quebeckers.

Honestly, who could knock that? We’re still wondering….

We’ll keep you up to date on developments.

(And in case you’re wondering: we don’t have a problem with Law 101. We’re fighting for French!).


For more info: