Diversity, Equity, Opinion, Pathways, Teaching

Preventing Adolescent Immigrant Dropouts

If refugee students are to stay in school, schools need to respond fully to their academic needs.

Having spent five years as a development worker in Vietnam, by the time I returned home to Canada in 2005, I was well aware of Article 28 of the UN Conventional on Rights of the Child, which states that children have a right to a Primary Education, compulsory and free. I was also very conscious of the UN Millennium Goal 2, Universal Primary Education. Thus, it was a big shock and disappointment to me to find that in my own country, one of the richest and most respected for educational achievement, there were children and adolescents being denied the opportunity to achieve even a basic, elementary education. Adolescent immigrants from refugee camps around the world were arriving in Canada, entering the high school system and dropping out within a few weeks. Children in lower grades were attending, often sporadically, and were showing little or no academic achievement. Obviously, schools were not meeting students’ needs.

Why do government-assisted refugee students drop out of school? Two factors are principle: first and foremost, the lack of educational programming that meets their academic readiness and, secondly, the financial pressure that forces older teens to quit school and help support their families – accepting dead-end jobs.

Crawford (2008)[i] published an adolescent psychology textbook that very rightly focused on the fundamental principle of differentiated instruction. She writes:

Since adolescents bring a diverse range of knowledge and interests that are shaped by varying biological, cultural, and experiential factors, the challenge for teachers is to find a point of connection with what students know, believe, and feel (Crawford, 2007). When teachers pay attention to the knowledge and beliefs that learners bring to the learning task and use this knowledge as a starting point for new instruction, learning is enhanced (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).

When Government Assisted Refugees (GAR) students enter our school system, they very often are met by a system that has little or no idea of their prior experiences, background knowledge, cultural practices nor academic readiness. The type of differentiating they need often cannot be met in the mainstream. Differentiation may mean differentiating environment and programming.

In 2001-2002, due to a change in federal immigration policy, schools in Canada began to see an increase in the arrival of GARs. Unfortunately, there was little or no preparation for the arrival of these children and teens, whose experiences, cultures, social, emotional and academic needs were very different from school populations we were equipped to service. In my province of Newfoundland and Labrador, nobody in the provincial education system – ministry, school boards, school administration, nor teachers – was given background information, or in-service on how to assess and support GARs. These children and teens, from war torn countries, were plucked from refugee camps and dumped into mainstream classrooms, placement and programming based on one criterion only – year of birth. In many cases, illiterate adolescents, with neither the language, the knowledge, cultural know-how, political clout, nor the self-esteem to protest, were dumped into mainstream middle and high school academic courses. When I, as a program specialist of the Ministry of Education in Newfoundland and Labrador, assessed GAR students in 2006-2008, the majority were placed in academic courses with outcomes anywhere from two to ten years above their numeracy and literacy levels. Needless to say, the majority of the GAR students in the ESL cluster high school in St. John’s dropped out with no higher academic skills than they day they had arrived. Fortunately, the situation turned around with the implementation of an academic bridging program (Noseworthy, 2014)[ii].

Differentiated instruction starts with an assessment of the needs of students. Obviously, there are far more factors to consider than year of birth in determining services and academic programming for students. By placing students in academic courses well above their achievement level, not only are we denying them the opportunity to learn, but we are very likely further marginalizing and traumatizing them.

No teacher, no matter how devoted, can differentiate instruction to fully meet the needs of students who are 2-10 years behind in their readiness level. If refugee students are to stay in school, schools need to assess and respond fully to their academic needs. It entails more than website with tips or a “toolbox”. It requires fully developed curriculum for bridging programs, curriculum based on a needs assessment of this specific group of students. Successful educational experiences are not only crucial stepping stones to integration, economic and personal self-fulfillment, but are also key to helping these students build much needed confidence, pride, and a commitment to Canadian citizenship.

I am not, by any means, in favour of segregating ESL students who have the readiness to succeed in the mainstream academic course. ESL classes that create ghettos are not acceptable. However, the needs of most GAR students go well beyond ESL and beyond the scope of the mainstream age-appropriate classroom.

Furthermore, if refugee students are to stay in schools, educational communities have to be proactive in pressuring government to properly support refugee families financially and provide incentives for adolescents to continue with their education. Nobody in our society benefits from sustaining a population of uneducated, marginalized immigrants. Apart from our ethical duty to support these youth and families in reaching their potential, in is in our own best interest to design and promote education for all.


[i] Crawford, G. B.  (2008). Differentiation for the Adolescent Learner: Accommodating Brain Development, Language, Literacy, and Special Needs.

[ii] Noseworthy E. J. (2014).  A Chance to LEARN: A bridging program for refugee students, Education Canada.


This blog post is connected to Education Canada Magazine’s Towards Fewer Dropouts theme issue and The Facts on Education fact sheet, How Can We Prevent High School Dropouts? Please contact info@cea-ace.ca  if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.

Meet the Expert(s)

Elizabeth J. Noseworthy

Elizabeth J. Noseworthy was ESL Program Development Specialist for the Department of Education, Newfoundland and Labrador, from 2007 to 2012. She has worked in English language education in Canada, Mexico, Vietnam and Qatar, and is currently a curriculum specialist at Talca University in Chile.

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