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‘Really a safe space’: Why investing in all-girls bilingual education makes a difference

Joan of Arc Academy.

When Dean Oliver and Lisa Leblanc contemplated their daughter Charlotte’s education over a decade ago, they felt it was important to find a school that emphasized character and exploration. They also wanted a smaller student-to-teacher ratio and because of their Ottawa location, they wanted their daughter to learn French.

“Lisa’s family is French-Canadian, so we wanted to ensure this legacy, more than 400 years old on the Leblanc side, continues,” Oliver says. “I am perfectly adequate, but will never rise far above the functional bureaucratic French I need for my job, and have struggled my entire working life to maintain.”

Joan of Arc Academy — which is the only bilingual all-girls school in Ottawa — appealed to the couple for all of those reasons and more. In conjunction with the Academy, we take a look at why choosing all-girls education and building French skills early makes a difference.

Developing bilingual skills early

Studies have shown that children who develop bilingual skills at an early age have increased cognitive development, which can also increase their abilities to problem solve, think creatively and apply things they’ve learned to new situations, and improve their overall academic performance.

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At Joan of Arc Academy, the junior and senior kindergarten classes are taught 100 per cent in French. From Grades 1 through 8, the curriculum is split into a 50-50 model. In addition to language studies, physical education, performing arts, visual arts and social studies are taught in French, while math, science and world religion are taught in English.

Joan of Arc Academy.

“The school has been everything and more that we might have expected from a small, language-focused school,” says Oliver, whose daughter Charlotte is now in Grade 7. “It has stimulated her curiosity; given her confidence without ego; developed a family-like body of friends, teachers and parents that has been wonderfully supportive; and allowed her to develop marvellous life skills — civility, respect, openness, an aptitude for public speaking — that we think will serve her very well in later life.”

Although Oliver and his wife speak French, it is not an admissions requirement that one or both parents speak the language. In all 12 of Ontario’s publicly funded French school boards, however, French-language education is only available to students whose parents are French-language rights-holders. There are case-by-case exceptions, but generally it is required that at least one parent speaks the language.

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“The people that come to us actually want their daughters to be bilingual, because they know all the benefits of having a bilingual brain, especially in a city like Ottawa,” says Brian Lamb, head of school at Joan of Arc Academy. “A bilingual brain means you’re open to other languages and you’re able to switch back and forth.”

READ MORE: Demand for French immersion admissions remains strong among newcomers in Ontario

Joan of Arc Academy.

The benefits of an all-girls education

Before joining Joan of Arc Academy, Lamb had plenty of experience teaching math and science at co-educational schools. He saw firsthand how some of his brightest female students would wait for the male students to answer before volunteering themselves.

He also notes the girls would often only answer if they knew they were 100 per cent correct, whereas the boys seemed more likely to take a chance.

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“There’s actually a beautiful TED talk about girls and perfection,” he says, citing a 2016 talk by Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani in which she speaks about teaching girls bravery and risk-taking.

He also points to additional studies that indicate girls who learn in an all-girls environment may have stronger academic skills, are more engaged, demonstrate higher levels of science self-confidence and cultural competency, have increased political engagement and show stronger community involvement.

“It’s really a safe space with leadership opportunities,” Lamb continues. “We’re developing leaders, we’re developing girls that will have the study skills, the girls that will be able to have the confidence to say, ‘You know what, I’ve got this, I’m answering this question.’”

When Joan of Arc students graduate to high school, Lamb says many of them attend nearby International Baccalaureate or gifted programs, an arts-focused Ottawa high school or their local high schools.

“We don’t have too many people that continue in an all-girls environment,” Lamb says. “In the five years I’ve been here, we’ve had two students who went on to an all-girls high school environment. We pride ourselves in that. The girls are so self-confident after leaving here, they’re ready for a co-ed environment and they know they can hold their own.”

READ MORE: Bilingualism on the rise among children in Canada

Joan of Arc Academy.

Smaller class sizes, longer school days

Other benefits of a Joan of Arc Academy education, according to Lamb, are a staff of 20 that’s currently all-female and class sizes well below those in public classrooms. The maximum class size is 12 students in kindergarten, 16 students for Grades 1 through 5 and 18 students for Grades 6 through 8.

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Since the Academy covers both French and English curriculum, the school day is longer, running from 8:45 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Drop-off begins at 8 a.m., and pick-up ends as late as 4:15 p.m., which Lamb says may be a benefit for parents of young children who are looking to eliminate extra before- and after-school program costs. (Joan of Arc also offers an after-school program for an additional fee).

The cost of admission is also partially tax-deductible. Lamb says parents can claim most of their kindergartener’s education under the daycare benefit, while those with older students are able to claim a portion of tuition as a charitable donation since Joan of Arc is a registered charity.

“We would recommend Joan of Arc strongly and without qualification,” Oliver says. “The school has helped make Charlotte both self-aware and self-actualizing: conscious of her responsibilities and privileges vis-à-vis others, with a strong sense of empathy, and yet individually dedicated to her own goals and possibilities. Who knows what high school later might bring, but for now we are immensely satisfied with the person the school is helping her to become, and the role the school has played in our family as a result.”

For more information or to arrange a personal tour of the school, click to Joan of Arc Academy’s website.

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