Curriculum, Diversity

A Chance to LEARN

A bridging program for refugee students

In 2001-2002, due to a change in federal immigration policy, schools in Canada began to see an increase in the arrival of government-assisted refugees (GARs). As an itinerant ESL teacher in the St. John’s, N.L. area at the time, I quickly realized that these displaced persons from war-torn countries were in a completely different category than many past claimants of political asylum. In the 80s and 90s, the majority of refugee claimants were educated people from Eastern block or other communist states who had defected while on international flights that chanced to stop in Canada. The GARs in the K-12 system of the 21st century, on the other hand, were truly displaced people: children and teens who had spent years, and in some cases their whole lives, in UN refugee camps, and thus had had little opportunity for formal schooling. Some students as old as 18 years were unable to carry out even primary school arithmetic operations.

With no preparation for the arrival of this new class of immigrants, schools placed students according to age and elicited ESL teachers’ support. However, it was obvious to ESL teachers that the needs of these students went well beyond learning English. As a matter of fact, learning English was the easiest need to address, and the albeit necessary labelling of the kids as ESL often masked or detracted from their more profound needs. Fortunately, in 2007 the provincial government of Newfoundland and Labrador launched its immigration strategy and the Department of Education hired an ESL program specialist. In that newly created position, with a very supportive manager and a director of curriculum who understood the need to address issues of struggling learners, I immediately began to work on developing an academic bridging program for these students.

In early 2008, two teachers were hired to teach literacy and numeracy skills to GAR students in two St. John’s schools with high refugee populations, one an intermediate school and the other a high school. (Because of the availability of settlement services, all GARs received by the province of Newfoundland and Labrador are settled in the St. John’s area.) At the same time, a working group was assembled to develop a compacted curriculum, based on provincially prescribed K-9 outcomes, in Language Arts, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies. I had read about the bridging program offered by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and later had an opportunity to meet TDSB’s Betty Ann Taylor, the driving force behind the program. Our new program in Newfoundland and Labrador, inspired by Toronto’s Literacy Enrichment Academic Program (LEAP) was entitled Literacy Enrichment and Academic Readiness for Newcomers (LEARN). By February 2009, we were ready to launch the new program.

The government-assisted refugee students in the two pilot schools, most from Bosnia and several countries in Africa, were assessed in English, first-language literacy, and mathematics. The majority were found to be functioning at the K-3 level. Math assessment was a key component of the initial assessment as it can be carried out with very little language and it sheds light on a student’s previous formal education. First-language literacy was assessed through interviewing and other measures, such as having the student write a paragraph on a familiar topic. Even when translation was not available, it was often apparent from the handwriting, length of passage and student confidence during the writing session, that the student had a very limited literacy level. Some teenagers were barely able to write their own names in any language. Students were placed in the LEARN curriculum and began studies at the assessed achievement level. Initially, students spent about 50 percent of their day in the LEARN courses and were integrated into mainstream subject areas with low language and literacy demands.

The LEARN curriculum consists of two levels, with six bridging courses in total. Level One, which can be carried out over one or more years as needed, focuses on Language Arts (basic literacy) and Mathematics. The goal is to get students to a low/mid elementary school level. The LEARN curriculum is based on prescribed curriculum in those subject areas and materials are drawn from a range of age-appropriate resources. For example, we found that some of the best K-3 reading materials for older children and teens from various countries were, apart from their own stories, non-fiction texts and folk tales. These are of universal appeal. Functional texts also play a large role in basic literacy. Level Two of the LEARN program consists of four courses, covering the four core curriculum areas: Mathematics, Language Arts, Science and Social Studies. In the meantime, a new ESL course was developed for grades 7-12: ESL Foundation is targeted to beginning English learners with limited first-language literacy skills.

The LEARN courses are sheltered instruction courses. Teachers use techniques to develop content skills, language and literacy simultaneously. As with any good reading program, guided reading, shared reading, shared writing, journal writing and language experience are among the teaching techniques employed. Classrooms are equipped with educational posters, math manipulatives and a classroom library. Students whose first language is other than English, which is the majority of GARs, are eligible for ESL support in addition to LEARN. ESL teachers work closely with LEARN teachers and the LEARN teachers are experienced in both general education and ESL teaching.

The results of the LEARN program were immediately evident. School attendance and engagement was the most notable change. In the four months prior to beginning the program, nine refugee students had dropped out of the main cluster high school for ESL students. In the first year of the LEARN program, 36 students were registered in the two pilot schools. The attendance was tracked by the Department of Education and the program had a zero dropout rate. The program was welcomed by students and parents, as well as by principals and classroom teachers, who had been at a loss as to how to support students who were functioning up to ten years below grade level.

The LEARN program has led to improved academic performance and much lower rates of dropout among our refugee students.

As of spring 2013, about 100 students have taken advantage of the LEARN program at the two cluster schools, and the LEARN courses are now available to any school in the province. Many former LEARN students are fully transitioned to mainstream courses. Their progress continues to be monitored. There are lots of success stories, stories of teens who arrived in Canada with low primary skills and have since been successfully transitioned to intermediate and high school classes. To quote one LEARN teacher, “The students are making great academic gains… I don’t know how they would manage without LEARN.” Another teacher reports, “The results have been outstanding. The LEARN program has helped improve students’ confidence and sense of belonging. It has led to improved academic performance and much lower rates of dropout among our refugee students.”

Flexibility in scheduling has been a big factor in transitioning from LEARN to mainstream. The priority is to integrate the students into regular classes as soon as they are ready. Students are placed in classrooms where they can be successful. A student may be receiving some support from the LEARN program and at the same time enrolled in mainstream courses at different grade levels. This could mean a student is taking Grade 7 Math and Grade 8 Language Arts or any combination of courses.

In conjunction with the LEARN program, in 2008 the Department of Education began funding a summer enrichment program for immigrant students. The program focuses on literacy, numeracy and social integration and targets teens with limited prior schooling. The Department of Education has partnered with the Association for New Canadians, the official settlement agency for GARs, to offer the summer program and liaises closely with the Association and the school district in addressing immigrant needs in general.

The success of the LEARN program is largely due to administrators and teachers, from the Department of Education to the school level, who were open to addressing educational needs through innovation. As new issues come to the forefront, educators must find new ways of doing things. Established practices need to be questioned and interventions have to be results driven. Education theories must be tempered with consideration of the realities of the particular situation. For example, while inclusion is the ultimate goal for most students, placing a student in a classroom and a curriculum based only on the student’s birth year does not guarantee inclusion. It negates what we know about academic readiness, may eliminate the student’s chances of taking part in curriculum that would address his or her needs, and often forces the student into an environment in which he or she can only feel marginalized.

We can only teach a student what he or she is ready to learn. When I was a child, I heard about Marilyn Bell swimming across Lake Ontario. At the time I thought, how could she do it? All alone swimming for 20 hours! I later learned that long-distance swimmers have a boat with a support team, a coach and someone passing them food, drinks or whatever else they may need to keep moving forward. The support team can only be effective, of course, if it moves along with the swimmer. It would be pointless for the support team to stand at the finish line and cheer from there.

Photo: Courtesy Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

First published in Education Canada, January 2014


EN BREF – Quand les écoles de St. John’s (T.-N.-L.) ont commencé à accueillir des réfugiés parrainés par le gouvernement (RPG) de camps de réfugiés de l’ONU du monde entier, de nouveaux programmes étaient clairement nécessaires pour répondre à leurs besoins en matière de littératie et de numératie. Cet article explique la mise en place d’un programme passerelle dans deux écoles faisant partie d’un regroupement à St. John’s. Après l’élaboration de cours passerelles et l’évaluation initiale des niveaux respectifs de littératie et de numératie des élèves, ces derniers ont été placés dans des cours correspondant à leurs besoins. Le programme a immédiatement donné lieu à une réduction du taux de décrochage du secondaire des RPG et au relèvement de leurs niveaux de lecture et de mathématiques. Jusqu’ici, plus de 100 élèves ont profité du programme LEARN dans ces deux écoles et beaucoup d’entre eux ont intégré avec succès le programme régulier.

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