After examining programs in other schools that teach Grade One students half the time in English and the other half in French, Chisasibi school principal Françoise Baril wondered if the same could be done with a Cree/second-language program.

Baril said she was approached by the Chisasibi parents to see if there was an alternative to the Cree Language Instruction Program (CLIP) because though students progress well in Cree, often their second-language skills remain one to two grades below the level they should be at.

With knowledge that this kind of programming had been successful in producing perfectly bilingual students by the time they reached Grade Three with French/English programs in other schools in Quebec, Chisasibi’s James Bay Eeyou School decided to embark on its own 50/50 program. This happened with over 80% support from the parents in the community whose children were in Grade One.

In September 2009, the 50/50 pilot project was launched that saw the school break down its Grade One students into five groups – two of Cree/English, two of Cree/French and one of CLIP. For those students who remained in CLIP, second-language instruction stayed at the pedagogical regime standard of six second-language periods per 36 periods. Only the students who entered Grade One in September 2009 are part of this pilot project however and the student’s language skills are tested twice annually to mark their progress at the request of the Council of Commissioners for the Cree School Board.

“In terms of the 50/50, half of the periods are taught in French by the French teacher or English by the English teacher and the other half by the Cree teacher. So, the teachers work together,” said Baril.

Explaining how the program works, Baril said the second-language teacher and the Cree teacher essentially switch off from period to period or each take half a day so that some of the courses, such as math, are taught in the second-language because the terminology is more applicable to that subject. When the Cree language teacher takes over, the main focus is Cree language but the teacher might also refer back to what was taught previously in the second language to reinforce the student’s comprehension in both languages.

In December 2009, all of the student’s language skills were tested to see if those in the 50/50 program’s mother tongue remained as strong as the CLIP students or if they were scoring below or above the mark.

“Cree has to remain strong. The second language is almost a given as they get so much more time in the second-language pilot that naturally they would do better. But the real thing is in Cree and what we have seen is that with students in the 50/50 pilot is that the transition of their knowledge is so much stronger,” said Baril.

The parents of the children involved in the pilot are also showing enthusiasm for the project. Back in June, local radio host Pauline Matthew interviewed a panel of parents whose children had been in the program for an entire school year and they were beaming about the results they had seen.

“When I first heard about the 50/50, I knew I had to put my child in this project. I was surprised to see how fast my child was learning in the first term. There’s a big difference with what my daughter is learning now and what my older daughters who were in the Clip learned. I think the 50/50 is more advanced. They learn so much more in there,” said Rebecca Matches

“I like it, I’m enthusiastic about it. The students are doing good,” said Christine Sam.

“They learn Cree as well. Cree language doesn’t leave them,” said Christina Spencer.

Baril said the school was unable to test the students at the end of the school year in June due to student absences, however these students are currently having their language skills tested and will be again in December as well as at the end of this school year. The expectation is that those in the 50/50 program might actually have stronger skills in both Cree and the second language and that their literacy rates might actually be higher.

“So far they are stronger. I had students in the 50/50 pilot reading short texts to me and singing me songs this past November. There were big words on the board one day and this little girl came up to me just being curious and they were showing me what they had been doing as a group. When I asked her to read the big words to me she read them and said this is ‘humongous’ and I asked her what it meant and she smiled enthusiastically and said really, really big.”

Though the official results of this program will not be known until next year, so far the pilot is showing results.