For most local children, March 28 will mark the return to school after two weeks of spring break. But for 91 other boys and girls, that day will mark their first time attending school in Canada – or, in some cases, ever.
The Abbotsford school district has set in motion a plan to slowly integrate dozens of Syrian children into the school system.
After orientation sessions take place March 9 to 11 to prepare the refugee students for school, five “sheltered” classes will begin after spring break. The classes will focus on helping the new students – some of whom might have had little to no formal education – adjust to the Canadian system and improve their English.
The hope is that the newcomers – the district prefers that term to “refugees” – will also be able to engage with fellow students and build friendships at lunch and during other parts of the school day, according to Kanta Naik, the school district’s director of instruction.
Five different classes are planned at four different schools. Kindergarten-to-Grade-3 classes will be set up at Dave Kandal and Dr. Roberta Bondar elementary schools. Roberta Bondar will also host a Grade 4-5 class. Grade 6-8 students will attend a class at Eugene Reimer, while Rick Hansen will host Grade 9-12 students.
“We’ve got a comprehensive plan to make sure that our schools are welcoming places,” Naik said, although she noted that the plan is designed to be flexible and change as unforeseen needs arise. “We don’t know all of their stories but we can imagine what a radical change this is.”
Teachers and administrators are being briefed on how best to help the new students and make them feel welcome. In her 23 years in the Abbotsford school district, Naik said there has never been such a large-scale influx of newcomers. But she said the demands have been met with excitement and enthusiasm by district employees.
“Our community has been fantastic,” she said, noting support staff have taken it upon themselves to gather items like second-hand clothes that might be needed by the children. “People really want to help in every way.”
The district has not yet received funding to support the new students this year, but Naik said those discussions may be occurring at higher levels of governmental. Next fall, the district will be eligible to receive English Language Learners (ELL) funding for the students – a level in excess of that for native English speakers.
Another eight kindergarten students are registered to begin attending school in the fall.
Earlier this week, Naik briefed the school board both on the transition plans and the district’s progress in educating such ELL students.
The report showed that students who enter classes in elementary school with low English proficiency are generally catching up with fellow students by the start of high school.
Naik said there’s no reason to think the Syrian students will be any different.
“If we start and keep them with other kids, they’ll learn the language quicker than just through instruction.”