Monday, September 1, 2008

Education Feature: Understanding Canada's School System

Published in Canadian Immigrant [September Issue]

School's in!
Starting school in Canada can be intimidating for immigrant kids and parents - here are some tips to help

It's back-to-school time, and for young Canadian students it's a time to replenish their school wardrobe and get ready to see some old friends. However, for newcomers to Canada, starting a new school year can mean much more stress than just figuring out what to wear on the first day. While a majority of newcomers say they chose to immigrate to Canada in order to give their children a better education, many don't understand exactly how Canada's public school system works.

As disctrict placement administrator for the Vancouver School District, William Wong says: "A lot of the misunderstanding that immigrant parents have about Canada's school system is based on what they've gone through themselves, but Canada's system is very different."

And there is also a lot of variety between different schools and school districts within Canada, at both the elementary and secondary levels. Some high schools, for example, may follow a two-semester system, while other schools offer their programs on a September to June basis. "Even in the middle grades of elementary school, there are many different teachers, and timetables are different everyday," says Peter Dorfman, Ontario's provincial co-ordinator of the Settlement Workers in Schools program. "A student may have been very successful and confident in school in their first country, but can become discouraged and vulnerable when coming to school in Canada because the systems are very different."

Methods of teaching also differ. While many school systems around the world place a huge emphasis on memorizing information, Canada's school system values communication and analytical skills. This is important for parents who are wondering why their child is trying to analyze symbolism in Lord of the Flies instead of memorizing multiplication tables.

As a way to ease the transition for immigrant students and parents to their new school system, many cities across the country offer the Settlement Workers in Schools program. Through this government-funded program, settlement workers from local immigrant service agencies are available onsite at the school to provide parents with information that will help them integrate quickly into the school and community and to provide emotional support to new students. "Parents need to be aware that their child is often very vulnerable because some kids thing they can take advantage of new immigrant students," Dorfman says. "By talking to their child about school, parents will have a better understanding of what's going well and it helps the kid think through what's happening at school."

For high school students, one of the biggest concerns they face is paving the road to university. Many times immigrant parents tap into their own experience and expectations, and guide their child to focus on academic subjects such as science or math. In some cases, parents also feel there is a stigma about enrolling their child in an ESL course and worry that it will prevent their child's chances from getting into a good university. As Wong explains, the opposite is actually true.

"Parents often tell me that their goal is for their son or daughter to graduate from high school and go to university, but they should take it further and say they want their child to finish university," he says. "That's when you realize the importance of ESL and good English. We've had many students who are extremely strong in maths and sciences but weak in English at high school. In university, they continue to do exceptionally well in sciences and math, but if they fail first-year English twice, the university will not let them go into third year."

Of course, ESL and English classes aren't the only places for immigrant students to improve and practise their English. While courses like art, gym, woodworking and music may not be seen as highly important to immigrant parents, Wong says that these courses build communication skills.

"The best language learning is acquired when students are having fun," he says. "Sometimes I ask ESL kids in high school how much they speak English in one day and it's common to hear, 'Two minutes a day.' But if students were to involve themselves in these more participatory classes, they would enhance their opportunity to speak English tenfold."

Link to story on Canadian Immigrant here.

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