Ottawa eases transition for immigrant students






arrow-redNicki Dunlop of the Ottawa Catholic School Board’s Family Welcome Centre for Newcomers. Photo © Jordan Todd

By Jordan Todd

OTTAWA — Moving to a different country can be a very stressful time for any family, says Nicki Dunlop, who works at the Ottawa Catholic School Board’s Family Welcome Centre for Newcomers. This only makes it more difficult for immigrant students who are in a brand new situation to adapt to a school system, which may be very different from their own. The Family Welcome Centre is a program set up to assist newcomers to Ottawa in registering their child for school and helping them adapt and succeed in their education.

Family Welcome Centre for Newcomers logo.

The Family Welcome Centre for Newcomers aids new immigrants to Canada in registering and adapting to the Canadian school system. Photo © Jordan Todd

Another such program is the Franc Succès Program at Collège catholique Samuel-Genest, which meets on Mondays and Wednesdays after school throughout the school year. The program, which is run by the Vanier Community Service Centre (VCSC), serves immigrant youth from Grades 9 to 12 in adapting and feeling welcome in a new place, says Camille Marcil, youth program co-ordinator at the VCSC.

“It’s a social integration program to make it easier for them,” says Marcil. “So we do social stuff, but we have a lot of workshops, they do a lot of volunteering, they meet other newcomer youth, it really becomes like a little family.”

In 2013, more than 48,000 children under the age of 14 immigrated to Canada, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Depending on a variety of factors, adapting to a Canadian school system can be quite difficult for them, says Dunlop. “One family, their kids have been in private school, and they have money, and the private school happened to be based on the British system versus a family from Kenya that is going to a rural school,” she says, explaining the wide range of possible education circumstances that immigrants may be coming from.


In large part, it comes down to socioeconomic status.

“Absolutely, there is a cultural element, but you can’t underestimate the socioeconomic background of the family,” says Dunlop. “The higher their socioeconomic (status), the easier it is for them to adjust to school here.”

The Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO) also aids immigrant youth and their families in adapting to a new country and school system. Jesse Ranauta, OCISO’s youth program co-ordinator, says they try to focus their programs in the schools and areas with the highest number of immigrants.

“All of our programs are designed to support newcomer youth in terms of building confidence, leadership skills, practicing their language, as well as making friends and things like that.” – Jesse Ranauata

“All of our programs are designed to support newcomer youth in terms of building confidence, leadership skills, practicing their language, as well as making friends and things like that,” he says. “So providing the extra space within schools, but also outside of class time and things like that, where our facilitators can come in and provide support for them.”

One challenge many newcomers face is that the general structure of the school system tends to be very different than what they are used to, says Dunlop, especially when it comes to parental involvement.

“They don’t have parent councils, they don’t have parent-teacher interviews, the parents don’t actually have, necessarily, a say or a role, really any decision making in the school,” she says.

Another similar problem is self-advocacy.

“A lot of times students are coming from environments where they walk in, the teacher tells them what they’re doing, and there’s no challenging of that,” says Dunlop. “There’s no group work or organized debate around anything.”

In a similar way, Marcil says that many newcomer youth feel like their course load is decided for them, and they get very little input.

“They feel like the guidance counsellor chooses everything for them,” she says. “And then they just feel like they didn’t get to choose their classes.

The Family Welcome Centre tries to help newcomer students and their families deal with these issues. During their orientation, some of the typical differences between their previous school system and their new one will be explained. Once in school, English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers are often there to assist them in adapting.

Cultural and identity issues tend to be difficult for younger immigrants as well, says Ranauta. In many schools they have weekly meetings, and these issues tend to arise quite frequently.

“We talk a lot about identity, what it means to be Canadian, or any kind of issues that they want to talk about,” he says. “Sometimes we leave it open up to them, see what they want to talk about, and we go from there.”

Possibly the biggest challenge is language. If a child does not speak any English, that is obviously a huge barrier to learning, Dunlop explained. From kindergarten to Grade 8, non-English speaking students actually follow the curriculum alongside their peers, so this can create a difficult challenge for students and educators. In high school, there are specific ESL courses that students take.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has a framework for tracking English proficiency, which the Ottawa Catholic School Board tracks among their students. They can then identify when a student’s progress is stalling, says Dunlop, and when they see this happening, they can step in and address any problems in a student’s learning or English education.

“If we see that a student is stuck on a particular step, we can put a face to the name,” she says. “And then that starts a conversation with the teacher.”

Unfortunately, says Ranauta, ESL and English Literacy Development (ELD) courses are not available in all Ottawa high schools.

“Only certain schools in the Ottawa district school board are ELD schools, or have ELD programs,” he says. “And that can often mean travelling from one side of Ottawa to the other to get to that school.”

Ranauta stressed that newcomer youth should not be a seen as a single group, but as an incredibly diverse array of different people, stories and backgrounds, with individual needs, challenges and possibilities.

As for the newcomers in the Franc Succès, many end up ditching the program after a few years, say Marcil. But that’s a good thing.

“They don’t need it anymore,” she says. “They’re too busy with their leadership class, and their basketball league, and their homework.”

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