FREDERICTON – A lack of support, including access to full-time translators, led to what frantic staff called “communication breakdowns” and culture clashes between Syrian refugee students, classmates, and teachers at a New Brunswick high school this year.
More than 2,700 pages of documents reviewed by The Canadian Press detail the concerns of overwhelmed educators as they dealt with a sudden influx of students who didn’t speak English, may have been out of school for years, observed different religious practices, and came from war-affected countries.
The documents were obtained by The Rebel, a right-wing news outlet, through access to information, and their authenticity was confirmed by the school district on Thursday.
“We are living in a province where there are no official EAL (English as an alternative language) courses for high school, no alternate programming for war-affected youth, no personnel that have designated roles, like translator-interpreters, for example to help us settle youth down, make them feel at ease and help them navigate a whole new set of cultural and social norms,” wrote Chantal Lafargue, the department head for international students at Fredericton High School, in an email on March 30, 2016.
That followed an earlier email in which she said that while educators from across New Brunswick were reaching out to her for advice, she didn’t have a voice at the provincial table “where the gaps and mechanisms of support are to be identified.”
The documents repeatedly cite issues of tardiness and absenteeism among the 29 Syrian students at FHS and cultural confusion about gender roles. Some teachers complained about students refusing to speak English and using “peer pressure” to deter others who were trying.
In another email, a teacher described an incident in class where a student was asked by some of the Syrian students to repeat a line in Arabic. When he did, it prompted snickering and laughing from the Arabic-speaking students. The teacher said another student told her that the line included foul language directed at a student from Israel.
Lafargue also described an incident during a class discussion when a Syrian boy talked about RPGs – or rocket propelled grenades – and made loud noises and hand gestures. In a statement, David McTimoney, the school district superintendent, said a translator indicated it was a topic that “horrified” the boy.
Other teachers described behavioural issues and younger students feeling intimidated by the older, non-English speaking students from Syria.
Shawna Allen-VanderToorn, co-ordinator for English as a Second Language programs for the school district that includes Fredericton High, said the problems occurred because the district didn’t know how many immigrant students from Syria would be arriving or which schools would be affected.
“So we couldn’t just hire teachers and have them in place waiting. We had to put students in schools and adjust as we needed to adjust,” she said in an interview.
But lengthy email exchanges about everything from parent-teacher interviews to special needs assessments show staff struggled to adjust, using the words “chaos” and “fragile” to describe the situation.
As Lafargue wrote increasingly strident requests for help from full-time translators, one educator suggested the use of cell phone translation apps that could help. In March, vice-principal Robyn Allaby wrote “I should have arranged for a translator sooner; hindsight is 20/20. Things have just been happening so quickly.”
Allen-VanderToorn said that as the school year progressed, more teachers and tutor time were added at FHS and other schools in the district.
“We did have to have an interpreter come in at times and explain this is the way things work in our structure,” she said, adding that afterwards the situation was fine.
McTimoney said educators at FHS worked hard to ease the transition of new students from Syria, ensuring the creation of a prayer room within the school and the inclusion of halal lunch options.
He said another 12 full-time equivalent teachers positions will be added within the district this fall.
Allen-VanderToorn said a lot of lessons were learned. She said the district will have a new welcome centre for newcomers this year, rather than trying to process them at each individual school. She said there will also be added supports for the English as an Alternative Language program.
Although the documents offer great detail about the problems encountered at one high school, educators across Canada have spoken about how the sudden influx of Syrians has affected their schools.
Forty-one Syrian children arrived at Joseph Howe Elementary School in Halifax in February, suddenly expanding the small, inner-city school’s population by a third from its existing 146 students.
“What we’ve been hearing is the teachers are working really hard to ensure a good transition, but the problem is the resources and funding aren’t necessarily in place for that,” Shelley Morse, the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said in April of the 316 Syrians placed in the Halifax board’s schools.
Last month, during an appearance before a Senate committee in Ottawa, Zaiba Beg, the co-ordinator for English literacy programs for the Peel District School Board in suburban Toronto said the influx of Syrians had strained an under-resourced system.
“This reality presents new learning and new demands for classroom teachers, English as a Second Language teachers, and school administrators,” she said.
Jeannie Everett, superintendent for school district 19 in Calgary, told the Senate committee that the flood of Syrian students required $2.6 million in additional resources and staff, including 20 teachers and 17 English-language learning assistants.
“Full funding is only received for students as of September 30. As you know our Syrian refugees arrived after January. Therefore we received no additional funding for these students,” she said.
The federal government this week acknowledged the impact on Canadian schools of the decision to accept 25,000 refugees shortly after taking office last fall.
“When you bring in 25,000 refugees in very quickly over four months it will never be perfect. There will always be hiccups or challenges along the way,” said John McCallum, the minister of immigration, during a stop in Halifax this week.
He said while the refugee program is a federal responsibility, schools are a responsibility of the provinces.
“The federal government put up hundreds of millions of dollars but other levels of government have to put up some money as well,” he said.
Jennifer Lockhart, a spokeswoman for New Brunswick’s Department of Education, said the department is working to determine the needs of the districts and have the necessary resources in place for the fall.
Allen-VanderToorn said despite the early growing pains in dealing with the rapid influx of the Syrian students, she believes the year was successful.
“These children, they were the highlight of my year. Working with the families, hearing their stories is something that will forever be etched in my mind and it was a very positive experience,” she said.