Could an ‘innovative’ school in Montreal’s fall victim to religious infighting? -

Could an ‘innovative’ school in Montreal’s fall victim to religious infighting?

Nesbitt Elementary considered “one of the most successful bilingual programs in the province”

Cutting class

Photography by Roger Lemoyne

The closing of an English school is hardly news in Quebec. Fourteen institutions have shut down in as many years in Montreal alone, thanks in large part to a dwindling English population and language laws preventing children of French parents and immigrants from attending. Yet, in the case of Nesbitt Elementary School, home to some 420 students and, according to commissioner Julien Feldman, “one of the most successful bilingual programs in the province,” the culprit isn’t numbers or stifling regulation. According to many Nesbitt proponents, it’s the victim of age-old infighting between Catholic and Protestant factions within the English Montreal School Board itself. And, in an odd twist, one of the school’s would-be saviours is none other than Louise Beaudoin, a staunch French-language hawk and former Parti Québécois minister who fought for decades against expanding access to English schools.

Nesbitt, which faces the chopping block in January, is located in Rosemont, a traditionally francophone neighbourhood with a significant English population. Because of this historical reality, Nesbitt is one of the few schools in Montreal’s east end to offer both majority English and French immersion programs. The result: French families who qualify (under Quebec law that means at least one parent had to have attended English school) can send their children to learn English, while English children receive nearly 70 per cent of their education in French. It has certainly impressed Beaudoin, the district MNA. “In an era of alarming dropout rates, it’s important to support the schools that have a winning and innovative formula,” she wrote in a letter to Nesbitt principal Mary Theophilopoulos last June.

Yet, despite the unexpected plug, and a noisy grassroots campaign on the part of Nesbitt parents, it remains on the list of six schools targeted for closure next year. Not even the EMSB can fully explain why. According to board policy, there are five reasons (including low enrolment numbers and proximity to other schools) why a school would be considered for closure. And yet, EMSB director general Robert Stocker concedes that “the school doesn’t fit into any of the five criteria.”

Jim Symianick thinks he knows the reason. The former school commissioner says the school is a pawn in the battle between old Protestant and Catholic board members. “Anyone saying there is no Protestant-Catholic aspect to the Nesbitt story isn’t seeing the whole picture,” he says. Symianick, who is consulting with Nesbitt parents fighting to keep the school open, says the formerly Protestant school retooled its curriculum in the ’90s to include a robust bilingual program. Its enrolment promptly increased, while that of the neighbouring Catholic schools languished. (The two formerly Catholic schools that would benefit from Nesbitt’s closure have both faced closure due to lagging enrolment in the past.) The resulting jealousy, Symianick says, carried over into the ESMB. “There exists elements within the board and community of Rosemont that don’t care about what Nesbitt parents have to say,” he says.

Stocker dismisses any notion of old religious enmity. “I really try not to triage whether it goes back to Catholic and Protestant roots,” he says. Instead, he says, Nesbitt is being considered because most of its students come from outside Rosemont, and is a drain on other schools. (A point, he concedes, that isn’t one of the EMSB’s criteria for closure.) As for Beaudoin’s plea to save the school: “We find it interesting,” says Stocker, “since her policies are one of the reasons why we have to close schools in the first place.”


Could an ‘innovative’ school in Montreal’s fall victim to religious infighting?

  1. Nesbitt does not fit closure criteria established by the EMSB.

    Any entity that offers better products, better services or better support is usually rewarded by success and popularity. Well this is according to the laws of supply and demand of course. At the EMSB the logic is rather different: if a school is too successful to the point where parents choose it for their children over other schools, well then that school must close, and parents will be forced to settle for schools and programs they did not want in the first place.

    Who can imagine a franchise closing one of its franchisees simply because too many clients go there? That’s an aberration right?

    Talking to Martin Patriquin, Reporter for Maclean’s Magazine, Mr Stocker is quoted saying :”Nesbitt is being considered [for closure] because most of its students come from outside Rosemont, and is a drain on other schools.” Yes, we are proud to say we feel privileged by the trust so many parents put in our school! We do offer an awesome immersion program and a fantastic core program, we have a wonderful principal and a bunch of awesome teachers and staff, in a great building and, last but not least, we play by the rules. Yes, we are successful! So much so in fact that many discerning parents often choose to drive their kids to school themselves.

    Is the EMSB’s mandate to foster greatness or mediocrity? One wonders eh?

    Parents within the EMSB territory have the freedom to send their children to the school that offers the program of their choice, core, bilingual or French Immersion.

    So what do we make of Mr. Stoker’s statement that: ” Nesbitt students come from outside Rosemont and this is a drain on other schools”?

    Here are the numbers, based on September 30th 2010 enrolment data:

    -Nesbitt Core Program enrolment : 158 students

    130 students out of the158 live within Nesbitt’s core program transportation boundary. Only 28 students come from other boundaries.

    -Nesbitt French immersion program enrolment : 264 students

    234 students out of the 264 live within Nesbitt’s French immersion transportation boundary. Only 20 students come from other boundaries.

    Out of the 422 students enrolled at Nesbitt on September 30th 2010, only a total of 48 come from outside the established program and transportation boundaries.

    Nesbitt Elementary School had its boundaries set by the EMSB and the great majority of its students live within those designated boundaries whether French Immersion or Core. Stating that “Nesbitt students come from outside Rosemont and this is a drain on other schools” is a reality twist by the EMSB which conveniently makes sole reference to distinct school boundaries.

    Granted, based on the notion of distinct boundaries, Nesbitt does indeed acquire some of its population from 8-10 other distinct boundaries. This is indeed a fact, but a normal fact, in that out of the 10 or so schools which make up the central sector, Nesbitt is only 1 of 3 other schools offering the French Immersion Program.

    Parents have the undeniable right to the program of their choice, and should that choice be French Immersion, then they have but only 3 possibilities. If Nesbitt draws 48 students from other boundaries, it is only because those boundaries do not offer the program that the parents wish to access. They choose Nesbitt for the quality and reputation of its French Immersion program. Again, it is the parents’ absolute right to do so.

    Is Nesbitt really draining other schools or is Nesbitt popular based on the excellence of its program offering and parents’ choice?

    So there you have it, the greatest of all injustices: 6 months later we have confirmation of what we knew all along: we have not been put through this ordeal because our school is not viable or too costly or suffers from low enrollment, no! Mr Stocker, Director General of the EMSB himself admits to Maclean’s Magazine that :”the school does not fit ANY of the five criteria [for closure].” End of quote.

    Bill 101 is not the reason Nesbitt is being considered for closure either. We have tremendous support from both Louise Beaudouin and Louise Harel, two staunch defenders of the French language. They provided us with their support because they saw how passionate we are about our kids being absolutely perfectly bilingual, in a school where both English and French enjoy equal exposure and respect.

    All the community leaders we have approached did not hesitate to provide us with their support, because we are worthy, our cause is fair and just and our school is a victim of a grave injustice by the hands of some EMSB commissioners whose reasons and priorities are selfish.

    Why are we facing this ordeal ? The reason can be inferred from what Mr Stocker stated. It is greed and the Petty political maneuvering of some commissioners who would rather keep their schools open despite the undeniable fact that they — rather than Nesbitt do actually qualify for closure because of their abysmal enrollment numbers and high maintenance costs.

    Over the past 6 months, the Nesbitt community has gone through great lengths to keep our school off of the consultation process to no avail. So we did the next best thing. We have rallied prominent community and political leaders to our cause, we even had a great meeting with high ranking officials at the Ministère. Our goal is clear: since reason and fairness seem to be missing so far, we need to make sure as many eyes as possible are focused on the Council of Commissioners at the EMSB come the January vote.

    If Nesbitt does not fit any of the criteria for closure than what is it going to be judged by? Many interested parties are and will be watching.
    Nesbitt Action Committee

  2. Just to clarify: 
    “French families who qualify (under Quebec law that means at least one parent had to have attended English school)”

    One parent has to have attended primary or secondary school in English within Canada.  Being a Brit with a Quebecois partner, our kids have no right to attend a regular school in English, as I was raised with (quel horreur) UK English, although I attended McGill later, and he was raised in French.  That’s why we left the province – after we had benefit from Quebec’s low tuition, of course…

  3. It’s sad that Nesbitt is closing its doors. Fifty years after the Quiet Revolution, there’s no excuse for any Quebecer not to be bilingual. Anglophones need to know French to get by in a province that’s predominantly French, while Francophones need to know English in order to compete in a world that uses English as its international language of commerce. 

  4. Geography update:  Nesbitt is not in ”
    Montreal’s east”.  It is considered central Montreal.