200 ESL spots axed in school budget

By Krysta Krupica
English as a Second Language students at Cambridge elementary school are among those who could be affected by cuts to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s special education programs recommended in the 2000-2001 budget.

“These are wonderful, delightful children who do well if given the chance,” says Cambridge principal Barbara Wright. “But if they don’t get the help they need, they are often left behind.”

Of the 337 students in the school, 243 are ESL students. Two hundred of these students aren’t eligible for funding under the current provincial ESL model because they’ve been in Canada for more than three years. Funding for their ESL classes has been cut in previous years.

The 2000-2001 school board budget recommends further cuts to the ESL program in order to meet requirements set out by the province of Ontario.

The budget, presented to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board trustees at a committee of the whole meeting Feb. 9, recommends $18 million in cuts. On the chopping block are $3.8 million from ESL programs, as well as a $2 million-cut out of special education, and library services would also have its operating budget limited. The school board’s cuts mean less money will be allocated to both elementary and secondary schools where ESL classes are offered.

The budget calls for only students who are deemed to have the highest level of need to be given additional assistance beyond the regular classroom teacher.

John McKinzen, the elementary ESL co-ordinator for the school board, says students who have become fluent in speaking English, but can’t read or write, are at particular risk witht he board’s decision.

“It takes these students a substantially long time to be on equal footing with regular students academically,” he says.

McKinzen says the decision means students who can speak English well, but are still struggling while learning to read and write, could lose out on special classes with ESL teachers because it’s often believed that beginners in English need the most help.

The board has allotted $1 million to help regular classroom teachers to meet the needs of ESL students in their classrooms, but McKinzen says it’s more difficult for ESL students to learn in regular classes.

Wright adds it’s important to remember that the effects of cutting ESL programs are long-term and have serious ramifications on the students.

“You pay in the long run, stacking the odds against them,” she says. “It goes hand in hand with other issues like drop-out rates.”

McKinzen says he hopes some of the $14 million found in an accounting error earlier this month will go to the ESL program in an effort to soften the blow of the cuts.

“I thought I had a crystal ball, but I threw it out last year,” he says. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

Joan Spice, of the Ottawa-Carleton Assembly of School Councils, says the issues surrounding the budget concern everyone.

“Cuts are being felt right across the board,” she says.

Spice adds the major issue regarding the budget tends to be the issue of special education and McKinzen agrees.

He says it’s important to remember that voices from the community are driving forces behind opposition to the budget. Since parents of ESL students often come from countries where culture and language prevent them from being confident to speak publicly, ESL teachers have taken up their cause.

“Many are from countries where they dare not speak up,” he says.

“They come from places where that can lead to midnight kidnappings or prosecution. They have a real fear of authority.”

If the school board goes ahead with the proposed cuts, it will have lowered its operating budget to $514 million, most of which goes towards teachers’ salaries.

Trustees will vote on the budget March 27.