01/09/2015 10:08 EST | Updated 03/11/2015 05:59 EDT

French immersion wait lists in Surrey 'too long'

A group that advocates for French education says the Surrey School Board needs to provide more access to French immersion programs.

Canadian Parents for French says with only 15 schools of 120 in the district offering programs, there aren't enough French immersion spaces to meet demand.

"We know that there's a lot of demand and a lot of interest from parents across the province but it seems to be pretty red hot in the Surrey area," said Glyn Lewis, executive director of the group's B.C. and Yukon chapter.

Lewis is critical of Surrey's registration system — parents register by phone, on a first-come first-served basis, and many complain they are unable to get through to a school district official to register in time to get a spot.

Lewis said some families organized "calling parties" with several people calling in at once to ensure a better chance of getting a spot.

169 children were left on a wait-list, and Lewis wants the Surrey School district to be more proactive.

"We've seen these wait lists grow over the years and we need to see some forward thinking and some long-term planning," said Lewis.

He said other school districts have managed to better forecast demand for French immersion programs.

Fastest growing municipality in the region

Shawn Wilson, Surrey School Board chair and representative on the Surrey French immersion advisory committee, said that's not a fair comparison.

Other school boards have declining enrolment, which Wilson said makes it a lot easier to plan for popular programs. By comparison, Surrey is one of the fastest growing districts in the province.

"We're already 20 per cent over capacity," said Wilson. "It makes it really difficult to provide services to every single applicant."

Wilson said the school district has responded to concerns about the registration process and implemented a lottery system this year, which will allow parents will pick a first, second and third choice — a system that works well in other districts, such as North Vancouver.

"I think the new system will go a long way to make it fair," said Wilson.

But Glyn Lewis of Canadian Parents for French say that doesn't change the fact that many children will not get in.

"There just doesn't seem to be enough will on the part of the Surrey School Board to make access a priority," said Lewis.

To listen to the full interviews, click on the audio labelled "Canadian Parents for French Glyn Lewis on Surrey French Immersion" or "Surrey School Board Chair Shawn Wilson on French immersion programs."