Equity & Diversity

In Canada’s Public Schools, Immigrant Students Are Thriving

By Kavitha Cardoza — February 28, 2018 14 min read
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When 13-year-old André Cordeiro moved from rural Portugal to Toronto, the only English words he knew were, “hi,” “bye,” and “hot dog.” Four years later, he speaks English “way better” and credits the English-learner class he attends every morning at Islington Junior Middle School.

With just six other students in that class, the teacher answers André’s questions right away, unlike in the larger, mainstream classes he attends every afternoon. He’s more at ease in his morning class because no one speaks English fluently. “I feel kind of equal,” said André, now in 8th grade. “There’s not as much pressure if I make a mistake.”

Three-fourths of the roughly 500 students at Islington, a K-8 school in Toronto, speak a language other than English at home, including Somali, Arabic, Korean, Bengali, and Russian. But far from being unusual, this diverse school mirrors Canada’s largest city, where almost half the 2.7 million population is foreign-born.

Overall, 30 percent of Canada’s schoolchildren are either immigrants themselves or have at least one parent born abroad. That’s compared with 23 percent of U.S. students who are immigrants or children of immigrants. Yet Canada has one of the highest performing education systems in the world as ranked by the Program for International Assessment, or PISA, test that 15-year-olds from more than 70 countries take. The United States’ rankings, by contrast, are mediocre.

Sham, 9, left, and Barin, 10, both from Syria, sit in the front row of Ms. Grossi's ESL/ELL class at Islington Junior High School, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Part of Canada’s success is connected to its strong track record on educating immigrants. Within three years of arriving in Canada’s public schools, PISA tests show that children of new migrants do as well as native-born children.

This is surprising because, generally, immigrant children face considerable obstacles in school and do “significantly worse” than their non-immigrant peers, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“These students are often labeled as having a double disadvantage,” said Louis Volante, an education professor at Brock University in Ontario. “They have to adjust to a different way of doing things and they also generally have a low socioeconomic status in their new host country.” And refugee children often have a “triple disadvantage,” Volante said, since many of them also have experienced trauma because of war or natural disasters.

So what’s behind Canada’s success in educating immigrants?

For one, Canada selects immigrants mainly based on their ability to settle in Canada and take part in its economy, unlike the U.S., which largely has a family reunification approach. Prospective newcomers to Canada receive points for job skills, education levels, as well as proficiency in English or French, the two national languages. Across most of Canadian society, immigration is largely seen as positive and necessary for the country’s economic success.

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Developments, or OECD, says those policy and cultural differences on immigration give Canadians an advantage over U.S. schools, where immigrant students and their families are more likely to come from impoverished circumstances and the political environment for immigrants is much more fraught. But he says that doesn’t fully account for the high performance of immigrant children.

“Take wealthy immigrant children in the United States, they will do a lot worse than the same kind of immigrant children in Canada,” he said. And the flip side is also true, Schleicher said, pointing out that low-income immigrant children do better in Canada.

“There’s a lot Canada does to allow immigrant kids to achieve these results,” he said.

Teacher Ann Woomert work with Aisha, 12, from Somalia, in an ESL/ELL class at Islington Junior High School.

But there are still achievement gaps. While Canada overall does well on PISA, there are significant differences in student performance among the provinces. Within Ontario, English-learners still lag behind in reading and math compared to their native-English speaking peers.

Still, Canada’s experience may hold some important lessons for public schools in the United States, where there is a significant and persistent gap in reading and math test scores between English-learners and their English-speaking peers. English-learners in American schools—many of whom are born in the U.S.—are also less likely to take advanced courses and graduate from high school. Those gaps in performance carry profound implications for U.S. schools and broader American society as the numbers of children who speaking a language other than English at home continue to grow.

Making Academics Meaningful

Similar to what happens in American schools, English-learners in Canada are assessed when they enter school. Most can read and write in their home language but have limited English skills. They might be placed in regular classes with additional one-on-one language instruction. But a growing number of children arriving in Canada have had interrupted schooling and are not at grade level in their home language either. Since 2014, the province of Ontario has accepted more than 10,000 refugees from Syria, half of them children.

Hyam Al Tarifi, 13, was among the first wave of refugees to arrive in Toronto in 2015. Her family fled Syria for Jordan after several relatives were killed in the war there. “It was the baddest life,” she said of her three years in Jordan. She could only go to school after the Jordanian children finished their classes. But Canada has been different. “School is very nice, my teachers are so kind.”

Children like Hyam, who have missed months, or sometimes years, of schooling, are among the most challenged English-learners. In Toronto, they are in a special program called the Literacy Enrichment Academic Program, or LEAP. Students are expected to make two academic years of progress each year so they can catch up with their English-speaking peers quickly and be in mainstream classes full time within three years.

Ann Woomert teaches 7th and 8th grade students enrolled in LEAP at Islington. She uses props, speaks clearly, and writes unfamiliar terms in large letters on a whiteboard.

Woomert wants her students to see that they can contribute to the school, and not just feel they are being helped all the time. She asks them to create simple booklets, with a glossary and a ‘meet the author’ page and answer questions about topics that were unfamiliar to them before they moved to Canada, such as ‘What Is a Backpack?’ ‘What is Recess?’ and ‘The Gym.’ Woomert prints the booklets on glossy paper and they become part of the library in her class. “Teachers often ask ‘where can I get resources?’ The students are the best resources,” she said.

Intentional Integration

In the afternoon at Islington, all English-learners join mainstream classes, working side-by-side with native English-speaking students their age. There are 25 8th graders in Dalia Mukherjee’s science class, including Hyam and André.

This intentional integration is on display in every school in Toronto. Principals post signs in multiple languages prominently throughout their school buildings, teachers are encouraged to learn phrases in languages their students speak, and English-learners are expected to be included in all activities including reading the morning announcements and performing in school productions.

Student-made zines are displayed in Ann Woomert's ESL/ELL class at Islington Junior High School.

In Canada, the phrase, “we’re a mosaic, not a melting pot” is commonplace. Immigrants are encouraged to maintain their home language, even while they’re learning English. “There is that understanding that there’s no hierarchy of languages; all languages are equal,” said Sandra Mills-Fisher, the program coordinator of the English-learner department in the Toronto school district.

The Toronto school system has created several dual-language books with suggested activities and online resources in multiple languages, especially for parents. There are free, vetted interpreters available for in-person or phone parent-teacher conferences. And parents are often invited to share aspects of their culture at the school so their children feel a sense of pride in where they come from.

Janet McCarrol, who teaches English-as-a-second language, said building relationships with immigrant students and their families is essential to helping them thrive. In her classroom at Islington, she set up a red tea set after learning how culturally important tea is for many of her Middle Eastern students. While she talks to parents, the children make and serve tea. “It gives them a sense that ‘this is my space. The teacher respects this as part of my upbringing.’”

Teacher quality is one of the most important school-based influences on how well students learn and perform academically. In Canada, ensuring that top-notch teaching talent gets into the nation’s classrooms starts with a rigorous teacher selection process.

“It’s very competitive” says Janette Pelletier, a professor at the University of Toronto. Last year, her university’s teacher-preparation program had almost 400 applicants for 75 available slots. And the government covers the costs of teacher preparation for prospective educators, said Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor emeritus at Stanford University. Because funding is centrally allocated through each province, there is less variability in teacher pay.

In some U.S. states, students’ test scores can have repercussions for job security for principals and teachers, school funding, and whether a school remains open. But that’s not the case in Canada where test scores have no bearing on job security, bonuses, or pay. Islington Principal Rocco Coluccio says he’s “not at all nervous” about test results. “We have conversations with our superintendents about how we’re doing. There aren’t consequences.”

Schleicher, of the OECD, said Canada has “weaker” accountability for its schools than the U.S. does, but a stronger support system for teachers. “There’s a lot better emphasis on teacher professional growth than in the United States,” he said.

Making Equity a Priority

John Malloy came to Toronto as a teacher from Ohio almost 30 years ago. Now, as the director of education for the Toronto District School Board, he oversees almost 600 schools and approximately 245,000 students in the city. On 2017 tests, 75 percent of students in the city’s schools scored proficient in reading and 65 percent did so in math, with both slightly higher than the provincial average. The city’s overall graduation rate is 85 percent. In Ontario, graduation rates for English-learners are not reported separately.

Canada does not have a federal department of education. The 13 provinces and territories create and implement their own policies for precollegiate education, even though there is a lot of sharing of curriculum and best practices. But Malloy is certain that the key difference between schools in the U.S. and Canada is how they are funded.

In provincial Ontario, school districts don’t just rely on local property taxes. All money collected from taxpayers is routed through the provincial government. So every student in Ontario gets the same per-pupil funding, making it more equitable than in the U.S., where per-pupil funding in different school districts within a state can vary a lot. Malloy says in addition to this “healthy” per-student amount of $12,000, schools also receive approximately $10,000 per English-learner over four years, as well as additional grants. “I would suggest that we have access to more supports than many other places,” said Malloy.

Many Canadian teaching practices with English-learners are similar to those used in U.S. classrooms. But, just as with funding in the U.S., there is variation from district to district and state to state in how English-learners are taught.

Darling-Hammond argues that Canada’s best lesson for U.S. schools is that it is possible to scale up success. “The best education in the United States is at least as good or better than the education you can find in Canada or any other country in the world,” she said.

“Our big issue is we don’t do our best work equitably for all kids in all communities. And Canada has shown us that you can provide a high level of education across provinces and even across a country.”

It Takes A Neighborhood

Twenty-six high school students are in a quiet, darkened classroom, eyes closed and breathing in unison. On the other side of the door is a busy hallway teeming with students on lunch break at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute. When the students move on to do stretches, there are faint giggles as they bump into each other. This is a ‘Mind Your Mind’ class for 15- to 18-year-olds, meant to reduce stress and promote mental health.

One student, 18-year-old Aslam Azami, is from Afghanistan and came to Canada just two years ago. He’s now in 12th grade and dealing with anxieties familiar to young people on the verge of a major transition. “All the stress builds up from the subjects, all the homework, tests, and exams,” he said. “And then applying for universities. It’s your last year to decide your future.”

At first, Aslam was a little nervous and unsure whether this class would help, but now he shows up regularly. “This place is very welcoming place.”

Instructor Selma Ozkocak works with students during a Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC) class at The Neighbourhood Organization, in Toronto.

Nicole D’sousa, a youth mental-health worker, runs the class. She has an office at the school, but she works for The Neighbourhood Organization, one of Ontario’s network of more than 200 settlement centers. These are community organizations, funded in part by the federal government, and meant to help immigrants and refugees with their “healthy social, economic, and cultural integration” into Canadian society. The centers provide a range of services to immigrants: computer classes, help with finding jobs, and navigating the free national health system to name a few.

Apart from the breathing exercises, students in this class make slime, create posters, and write positive messages. “It’s just a way for them to de-stress,” said D’sousa. She says beyond the academic pressures of school, the students often feel stress from not knowing the language well or how the school system works. There are social pressures too, like struggles to connect with their peers and make friends. The settlement workers offer mentoring programs, tutoring, and afterschool clubs. Other times these settlement workers become critical cultural navigators.

Supports like this one are offered on top of the district’s cadre of counselors, social workers, and psychologists. Having so many coordinated, intentional social supports for students and their families is a hallmark of the Canadian school system.

Malini Singh coordinates settlement services at The Neighbourhood Office in Thorncliffe, an immigrant heavy enclave in Toronto. They served almost 22,000 newcomers last year—anything from teaching them how to dress for the winter and how to pack school lunches for their children to career counseling. “We have every service that a newcomer to Canada will need. We’re a one-stop shop,” said Singh. In the U.S., much of this work would be done by nonprofit providers and religious organizations.

In Canada, socioeconomic status is less predictive of a student’s performance than in the U.S. Having a strong safety net is critical for ensuring stronger educational outcomes, said Volante, because even when the programs help adults, the benefits affect children. “We shouldn’t divorce education policies from broader social protection and economic policies,” he said.

Growing Backlash Against Immigrants

Canada has traditionally been welcoming to immigrants.

“That’s an important thing that permeates how the broader society views different immigrant groups,” Volante said. Teenagers who feel part of a school community are more likely to perform better academically and to be happier with their lives. So, it’s not a stretch to see how this positive social climate can help new immigrants thrive.

Canada selects immigrants using a competitive point system that favors skilled, well-educated applicants. On a scale of 100, prospective immigrants can earn up to 25 points for education. In Canada, almost 75 percent of first-generation immigrants are born to parents who are at least as educated as the average parent of a non-immigrant student; in the U.S. it’s less than a third. Because of that, immigrants to Canada are widely seen to be critical to building the country’s economy. While schools do not ask about immigration status, those who enter the country illegally is not a widespread problem in Canada. The nation reportedly has about 150,000 unauthorized immigrants, compared to roughly 11 million in the U.S.

But Canada has not been immune to the growing anti-immigrant sentiment that has become more pervasive in the U.S. and in European countries in recent years. A government survey released late last year showed a small increase from 23 percent to 27 percent of respondents who think the country is letting in too many immigrants.

Diana Gunel and Mitra Shekari are 18-year-old students in Toronto. Both say immigration is slowly becoming more of a “sore subject” among Canadians. They’ve even noticed a more judgmental attitude toward immigrants in class. Gunel’s parents moved here from Iran and Shekari’s from Turkey, but both say because they don’t look traditionally Middle Eastern, people share their views more freely. “We’re like, ‘that’s our family being affected,’” said Shekari. “I don’t think you should be talking about this in this kind of way.”

André Cordeiro will be 14 soon. His language skills, along with his math and reading performance, are developing rapidly. “I know how to answer questions in class now,” he says proudly.

André hopes to soon be in mainstream classes full time. And while Canada is now home, he still misses friends and family back in Portugal. “Maybe when I’m older I’ll have a house there,” he says. “I can visit during Canadian winters!”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship Program.
A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Immigrants Thrive in Canadian Schools


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