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.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.