Montessori and French Immersion registration insanity begins at birth

When it comes to registration in "programs of choice" in the public school system, there must be a better way. In New West, we don't have parents camping out on the sidewalk overnight to be the first in line to register their kids (thank goodness) but our method is still crazy. In New West, instead of having the insanity begin the year before a child enters school, it begins at birth. As soon as you have your child's birth certificate, you can sign them up for the school and program you [...]

Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary in New Westminster currently offers both Montessori and Early French Immersion. Photo: sillygwailo (via Flickr)
Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary in New Westminster currently offers both Montessori and Early French Immersion. Photo: sillygwailo (via Flickr)

When it comes to registration in “programs of choice” in the public school system, there must be a better way. In New West, we don’t have parents camping out on the sidewalk overnight to be the first in line to register their kids (thank goodness) but our method is still crazy. When Wesley was first born, someone suggested I trot my newborn down to the School Board offices and get him registered for Montessori or French Immersion, if that’s what I wanted for him. I thought they were joking.

On the website, it’s easy to mistake registration processes for this school year for the overall registration in programs of choice. I saw a date to register kids the year they were to enter kindergarten, and I thought that was it, I’ll look it up again in 2013. Easy peasy.

I got it wrong. In New West, we continue the bizarre “first come, first served” tradition of registering children in Montessori and French Immersion, but instead of having the insanity begin the year before a child enters school, it begins at birth. As soon as you have your child’s birth certificate, you can sign them up for the school and program you hope  they will enjoy six years later. You can even sign them up for late French Immersion, 12 years in the future.

Here I was, thinking I was overthinking things by planning out Wesley’s schooling four years in advance. It turns out that in New West’s school system, I’m a big ol’ slacker.

To add to the fun, you may not:

  • submit the form via email or fax
  • remove the form from the office and return it later
  • mail or fax a copy of the birth certificate (you must bring the original and let the secretary copy it at the office)

The secretary carefully notes the date and exact time the form is submitted.

So do January babies have an advantage over December babies? Poor Nora (born in October) has to compete with all the babies in her cohort who were born earlier in the year (assuming other moms are looped in to the queuing process). And Wesley … well, he may be S.O.L. by now. Sorry, my son.

I assume the (very) early registration is intended to help the school district plan for future enrolment. I doubt how effective this process is for that, however. As an example, my first choice for my kids is Montessori, followed by late French Immersion. It’s what I did as a schoolgirl, and I thought it was a great sequence to follow. But if there are no Montessori spots, I’d be more than happy to put them in early French Immersion instead. There’s no way to indicate this on the form, so I had to mark down all of the above. I’ve now pre-registered for French Immersion kindergarten, grade one Montessori and late French Immersion for both kids! They almost certainly will not be using all those spots, and if I could wait until they were five or so, I could better select what would be best for them, given their temperament. Maybe by then I would feel that Wesley needs the structure of a traditional school program, or that Nora might struggle with a French Immersion curriculum.

Or maybe we’ll be living somewhere else, and all this will be moot. Many (most?) young families can’t realistically plan which school their children will attend six or 12 years from now. A typical real estate lifecycle for young families is to rent an apartment, buy a condo, then upgrade to a townhouse or house. Job opportunities and housing prices have a major impact on where those families settle when their children are school age. Parents who register their infants are engaging in wishful thinking, which may or may not translate into real places for their kids. Because even if you register years before kindergarten/grade one, the Montessori and French Immersion seats are so hot that you still might not get in.

And finally, to add to the ridiculousness of it all, the school district is right now in the process of deciding whether to move the programs of choice. It could be that my local school will no longer have either program, and the kids will be stuck with “regular” school unless we move to another catchment area (I don’t want to ferry the kids to a school across town, and chose our current house in part because the neighbourhood school offered these programs of choice). I also heard a rumour that French Immersion may be cut back to make room for all-day kindergarten in the district … who knows if that will come to pass, but it just goes to prove the point that it’s madness to try to encourage parents to put their name down when both personal and school district situations may change.

If we’re asking parents to jump through all these hoops to get their kids on the list for these programs, why not just expand the programs so that they are available to all children? The current system is elitist, favouring those families with local connections who know the score, and are settled and secure enough to plan six or more years ahead. It penalizes newcomers to the district, and those who misunderstand or are ignorant of the arcane registration rules. The reason given to me why these programs aren’t expanded is a lack of “space” – but all the kids have to go to school here, so I don’t think it’s “space.” If it’s money that’s the issue, I would rather see an education surcharge for parents to cover the extra costs of these programs than a first-come, first-serve or random lottery system that excludes kids who could otherwise benefit from these programs. Fees could be waived for families who can’t afford it, as is often the case for ‘extras’ in a public system.

Our school system should offer equal opportunity for all children in the district. The current model of meting out access to programs like French Immersion and Montessori is broken. The New Westminster school system must find a way to fairly respond to the demand for these programs. If money or other resources are a barrier for doing so, the district should work with parents and the Ministry of Education to find solutions to those problems. Above all, let’s not penalize the kids.

Briana Tomkinson

Briana Tomkinson is a Montreal-based writer and original founder of Tenth to the Fraser. She really likes to write letters by hand.

Briana Tomkinson is a really valued member of the Tenth to the Fraser community. Interested in joining our pool of writers? Please see these submission guidelines.


  1. Wow. Here I thought I could just walk up the street in a couple of years & put my older son in French immersion if I felt like it. Oh well, that's one more decision I won't have to make!

    Seriously, interesting article. You make an excellent point about the system favouring people who have lived here a long time & have "seniority" or know the system that well. We lucked into the neighbourhood we're in and couldn't leave even if we wanted to – the only direction we can afford to move is East and this is about as far East as I'm comfortable with – so it's a good thing I like the schools whether they're going to teach us French or not.

  2. It's a New Westminster tradition, this ridiculousness of lining up for things: Bunny Club, Preschool, and Programs of Choice are just of few of the things I've lined up for over the years. Actually, I think I remember some of my preschool friends talking about camping out for days to get their kids into EFI when the district first brought it in. That was before my time…can anyone else speak to that?

    I'm one of those people who checked off all three options, only to turn down the Montessori spots when offered (I didn't think it would be a good fit for my kids, but how could I have known that when they were so little?!). But it goes to show just how ridiculous the whole process is. Then when they started talking about moving programs of choice, I was really glad I decided to do the regular stream at my kids' neighbourhood school so we wouldn't go through the rigmarole of moving or commuting across town.

    I fail to understand the decision making process in our school district. It all seems like a lot of wheel spinning to me…to build or not to build, where, when. I'm beginning to doubt my kids will actually ever see a new high school before they graduate in 10 years.

    @Jen, the school district website is USELESS, I agree. Half of the info isn't even up to date, and I know our school doesn't even use their site AT ALL (I don't think many do, really). When I think of all the doubled paper notices (duplicated for each kid) that could be emailed or posted on the website as a pdf, it hurts me in the blue box!

    Grumble grumble…I actually really like my kids' school and the staff there, just not crazy about the decision making higher up.

  3. Wow. I haven't even considered schooling decisions as all yet– and now I have to research if Calgary has the same ridiculous system. Maybe I should register the little monkey in both Calgary and New West! 🙂 Thanks for the heads up!

  4. Thumbs up, Briana. Someone told me the exact same thing in terms of Kale’s education a few weeks after he was born and I too thought they were kidding. I wonder how many people are enrolling their children “in case” and how many of them 5-6 years later even still a) want to or b) live here.

    It’s total crap, IMO, and it’s why I’m exploring home schooling.

    Oh, and recently I was looking for program info for Strong Start on the School District’s website. Seriously, when was that site designed? 1993?

    The school district is seemingly incapable of sorting out the problems at NWSS either – I say its time for a major shakeup. I truly feel that the school district is not doing New Westminster families justice.

  5. Tomorrow on the school district website, there will be a link to examine the district's programs of choice review. The power point from tonight's board meeting refrains from making suggestions or recommendations but does detail "options" to consider, particularly because of the new district configuration including the new middle school and the new elementary school in the Victoria Hills development. Input is requested. Some of the options include movement of programs, and also catchment boundaries. Read and comment carefully. Likely it's fodder for a whole new posting — or for provision of a direct link from this post.

  6. @Lena – ha ha! I can relate! Ross and I are planning a house buy and a move, and we WANT to stay in Brow of the Hill. I LIKE my neighbourhood. I have a few friends who give me a hard time about living on "the other side of 6th". Like, we're in the ghetto here, apparently.

    Kale was slated to go to Robson, but now that's turning into a middle school. So I don't know if the catchment will be the new elementary schoool at St Marys site, or if its Kelvin. Either way, none of them will be the Programs of Choice, I bet. Too low income, according to the school board, I'd guess.

  7. Actually, I suspect that one of the reasons that they switched to this system from the earlier one was that the time you had to wait in line was getting insane.

    My oldest is in grade 5 EFI, and I still have fond memories of camping out overnight to get her onto that list (on the plus side, it was a great chance to get to know the parents of your child's classmates, especially given that they stay more-or-less the same as they progress, because there's only one EFI class pr school). The lines got longer in later years. Fortunately, the "sibling clause" meant no lineups to get my other daughter into EFI. I believe that people were considering getting into line almost a week beforehand when the district changed the system.

    It would be really nice if we had better access to the school district (and council's) information – I'd love to be able to publish a website that shows just how useless the registration system is for planning use due to all the problems you mention above. There wouldn't be any privacy implications of publishing a list of the numbers of children on each list at the start of each month.

  8. This school district is very slow to change so a new school in Victoria Hills should have to wait until the district solves the high school problem and the middle school for the other side of town. But now they have to implement all day kindergarten so parents dont have to pay daycare fees for their 5 year old child. Let kids be kids please they only get one chance at this and most parents I know truly dont know their child until they are at least three years old. Have fun choosing.

  9. Sigh. I actually stumbled my way around the SD’s terrible website while I was pregnant and when my son was 10 weeks old and terribly colicky, brought him into reception at their office to put him on the list for French Immersion. There were a few people ahead of me in line and he started fussing, and I was very rudely told by the receptionist to make him be quiet, that he was disturbing her. When it was my turn to get to the front, I gave her “what for” saying – “he’s 12 weeks old, what do you WANT me to do??” It was awful. I filled out the form (she knew nothing about it) and then realized a month later that I’d only applied for one school, not knowing that if that wasn’t available I wouldn’t automatically go on the list for the other french immersion kindergarten classes. Thus ensued a vicious game of phone tag with the registrar, and finally I got in contact with a helpful woman who said that she could add those other schools to my request. But guess what? My “request” – my original paperwork – was NOWHERE to be found in the system. Like, nonexistent. So rude receptionist probably filed us under “G” for garbage and 6 years later we would have got the shock of our life when lo and behold, we weren’t on the list. Thank goodness I kept my “officially date-stamped” application so they put us in the queue where we would have been had we not been LOST IN THE NWSD MATRIX. But the whole process was a right PITA if you ask me. And seriously, who can plan that far ahead? And even if my son does end up at Herbert Spencer, from what my neighbors have told me I will be greeted with elitist comments like, “you live on WHAT side of 6th Street?? That’s not Queen’s Park?!”

    Can’t wait to camp out for Queen’s Park preschool – not 🙂

  10. My sister is in Coquitlam and sends her child to a Coquitlam school and she said that registration for programs of choice happens in January the year before K. If there are too many students for Programs of Choice, they go to a lottery. The only program that needed a lottery this year was the Mandarin Immersion program, a new program. One of the reasons that they do it this way as that many parents really don't know in their child is appropriate for FI or Montessori until they are older. In my sister's case she was certain due to very separate reasons that both would be in FI, but neither ended up attending this program and both did very well in the local multi-age grouping school. So, as some of you noted, birth is a bit early to decide and I agree that it is unfair to families who move into the neighbourhood. Also, the Coquitlam, Maple Ridge and Surrey websites are darn good. I am thinking of sending my kid to Burnaby or Coquitlam.

  11. Janie;

    You are right to point out that “many parents really don’t know [if] their child is appropriate for FI or Montessori until they are older”. Some parents may have a good idea of what direction they would like to pursue, but as their child grows and develops, it may become apparent that earlier ideals may not correspond to the realities of an ever-evolving miniature human being.

    Change (physiologically and environmentally, …and systemically as applied to ‘education’) is a constant dynamic that parents must respond to if they are to successfully meet the needs of their child. Some parents may have planned for FI only to change their minds upon school registration. Other parents registering their child for school may have never planned for FI but wish they had.

    Many educators will quietly tell you that they wished that there were screening procedures in place to determine if a child is suited to a program as it would help with attrition rates and would set every child up to have a successful school experience, whatever their path may be. **Of course, politically, that can never happen because the process would be labelled “elitist” and “discriminatory.”

    Maybe, and though somewhat unfortunately, in New West, the best thing to do is to register for all programs at birth and, as your child grows, take the time to research the different programs and talk to parents with program experience (good and bad experience) so that when the time comes, you can make an informed decision about registering your child for school.

    I know of a number of parents who do that just to cover all of their bases and keep their options open so that ultimately, they will be able to make the best possible education choice for their child. While it is true that following that kind of strategy does nothing to contribute to the district’s ability to plan with some sense of surety, at the very least, it does address the needs of individual children and families.

    The current system is biased against those moving into the district but, as was successfully argued by program of choice proponents, if those already here were to have one child in a program and not another, it would/could create division within the house by making it more difficult for parents to support two streams of education – hence, the sibling clause and the current registration system.

    Wish I could offer some magic solutions but sadly, I don’t think any exist that would address the two polar extremes of different family needs: those who move into the city wanting to register in a program of choice, and those who register a first child in a program and want the same for younger siblings.

  12. I have a 3 year old daughter and after a discussion with fellow New West moms, I felt like I was so behind. One friend has both her sons (1 and 3) registered for French immersion and I had not done anything yet.

    I got my stuff together, just this past week and registered my daughter for Montessori. I don't know yet if we will take the spot, because in 2 years, she could be very different, but i don't want to have missed out ont he opportunity.

    What an ordeal!

  13. OMG! I'm currently pregnant with my first and had no idea about this insanity as I don't have friends with kids in the area. Thank goodness I stumbled onto this site and your very helpful posts.

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