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Vancouver schools welcome thousands of immigrants each year
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Posted: Thu Sep 15, 2011 11:46 AM

Tue Jun 07, 2011

VANCOUVER -- Back-to-school starts early at Moberly elementary school, where the majority of the thousands of new immigrant students %*$essed each year appear in August.

The east side elementary school houses the District Reception and Placement Centre, where as many as 4,000 students a year are evaluated for English as a second language and other academic levels while their parents are introduced to the school system and support services available through the centre.

Alex Escobar, 18, came to Canada from El Salvador about five years ago, with absolutely no English skills. This year, he speaks English perfectly and was the youngest ever student council president while in Grade 11 at David Thompson secondary school.

He says it was terrifying coming to school speaking no English, but the experience has been worth it.

“It felt very scary,” Escobar said. “Our parents moved here for their children — to give us the opportunity to experience a new culture. And here in Canada, I am able to experience so many cultures, with different food and different festivals.”

It took Escobar three years to master English well enough to give up his ESL classes, but now he’s focused on a future that he hopes will include university and a future as a commercial pilot.

Escobar’s achievement is impressive, said William Wong, district principal of student placement and ESL services for the Vancouver school district.

“For him to come in as a beginner student and within four years to become student council president, it just goes to show what the kids can do,” Wong said. “The message we want to give to the parents is that your kids will do well, have faith, and continue to be there to give them encouragement. [A parent’s] influence is crucial, especially during the teenage years.”

Saad Al Jaf and his family just arrived in Canada from Dubai on Aug. 16. Al Jaf was waiting while his daughter Sanarya, 14, was %*$essed at the centre. He said the move has been a big change, but he thinks his family will benefit in the long run.

“It’s a big challenge for us, but I believe it will be for a good future,” Al Jaf said. “I think our family will melt in with the culture here and we can succeed.”

One of the biggest jobs for Wong is dispelling misconceptions that parents have about Canadian schools.

The top misconception, according to Wong, is that students should strive to get out of ESL as quickly as possible, even if they’re not ready.

“They need to see ESL as a support rather than a barrier,” Wong said. “They think that because ESL doesn’t give credits for graduation, the faster they can get out of ESL, the faster they can graduate, but that’s not the case. You still have to finish English 10, 11 and 12 to graduate.”

Wong said there is tremendous pressure on some immigrant students to graduate as soon as possible.

“They think they have to get to university by 19, because in many of their countries that’s the only option. They don’t understand that our universities are a lot different,” Wong said. “Sometimes I’ve seen students in tears because they think they’ve let their parents down.”

While the majority of the new students coming to Vancouver schools are from Mainland China, large groups of students this year have come from Iraq, Sri Lanka and Mexico. At the centre, there are people who speak 15 different languages, and during a typical summer day 45 or 50 students are processed.

The Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS) program is housed at the centre, and while students are being %*$essed, parents speak with settlement workers, about everything from how to get a family doctor to how the school system works, said Jerry Wu, SWIS coordinator for Vancouver.

Some families who’ve come to Canada as refugees, such as those from the jungle who’ve immigrated via Vietnam, have never been to school before, Wu said.

“It’s a scary thing, if you’ve never picked up a pen or a piece of paper. We will talk to them, support them, and let them know that whenever they have questions they can come back to us for support.”

Wu said that children often adjust to their new country faster than parents, which can cause stress in families.

“The families may have other issues later on. Parenting styles can change, and we have workshops to give parents alternative ways of parenting,” Wu said.

Wong emphasized that extracurricular activities are very helpful for students who are learning English.

“They need to be immersed in the language,” Wong said. “Sometimes at school they will only speak English a few minutes a day, but by participating in other activities they can get so much more out of it.”


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