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Newcomer students face many challenges

Starting at a new school is a tough ordeal for any student under the best circumstances.

But what if, on top of making new friends and finding their way through unfamiliar halls, those new students are also new to the country?

“They’ve got a myriad of challenges,” says Brad Morrison, teacher and ESL designate at St. Elizabeth CHS in Thornhill. “To begin with, … not only is it a new language they’re getting used to, it’s a new education system.”

Things like teaching strategies, graduation requirements and codes of conduct all must be absorbed by newcomers, and can be confusing, he says.

In the classroom, students new to Canada have to play catch-up.

“Looking at the curriculum: Canadian history and geography, well this is completely foreign to them,” Morrison says. “They haven’t had the background from elementary school that would help a student in those courses.

“Civics and careers: They may come from countries where the political system is completely different from ours.”

To make things even more difficult, some newcomers have parents looking for work and may not yet have stable housing, he says.

“It was hard to adjust because it’s really different,” says grade 12 student Karisa Galzote, who came to Canada from the Phillipines two-and-a-half years ago. “And the fact that we have to change every class, we have to go to different classes — back in my country, we only stayed in one room.”

To help make the transition into Canadian school life easier, a new initiative was launched in Ontario this year through the Settlement Workers in Schools program. Newcomer Orientation Week (NOW) took place the last week of August in 40 schools across the province.

St. Elizabeth was one of two schools chosen to pilot the program in York Region. Twenty-six students took part.

“Orientation Week is really good because as a newcomer, I don’t know anything about this school,” says grade 11 student and NOW participant Daniel Prawira, who arrived in Canada from Indonesia this year. “From that program, I know a lot of friends and a lot of the school building: where can I find the guidance (office), where can I find the gym.”

A month into the new school year, Morrison says NOW has proven to be a success.

“I see a lot of positive outcome from the program itself,” he says. “I think the students are more prepared. I think the first day of school was much less daunting than it has been for students in the past.”

In his homeroom class, Morrison and his students — more than half of whom were NOW participants — have been going over a short story about a blind student’s first day of school.

“We were able to relate it to their own experiences as students who have a particular special need, theirs being a linguistic need as opposed to being visually impaired,” Morrison says. “This is a story that I’ve done for a few years and this year I wasn’t getting the typical responses on the actual first day of school: being scared and alone and that sort of thing.”

Instead of being led by teachers or settlement workers, the newcomer students at NOW were helped by 12 peer leaders, who were newcomers themselves not so long ago. Galzote was one of the dozen.

“It’s really great joining this program,” she says. “It’s another way to have new experience and it’s also a way to meet new people from different countries.”

The student leaders, both male and female, were chosen based on personality and linguistic background to give each newcomer the opportunity to speak to at least one person in their first language, Morrison says.

“They were phenomenal,” he says. “I was so pleased with how they raised to the challenges of being in leadership roles.”

Feedback to the program from everyone involved has been positive, Morrison says, and his hope is that NOW returns to St. Elizabeth next year.

If it does, Prawira says he wants to be there to help those newcomer students following in his footsteps.

“If I can, I will help.”

Vaughan Today
In print: October 3, 2008, page 7
Online: October 5, 2008 [link]