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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 3, Nov./Dec. 2006

Sounding the alarm in ESL

by Yvonne Eamor

In little more than 10 years’ time, one in three BC residents will be foreign-born and we are ill-equipped to handle the educational challenges that ratio will provide, according to Chris Friesen, director of Settlement Services, Immigrant Services Society of BC.

"We are not prepared because the focus of Canada’s immigration and integration program has always been immigration of adults, not children and youth. But almost 40% of immigrants to BC are the young," Friesen says. "In 2017 there will be a fundamental shift within BC society, and not just in the Lower Mainland, but throughout the province. It begs the question: are the foundations in place? Are approaches in place to handle the increasing challenges that we’re starting to see? How prepared are we to deal with this?"

In his opinion, not very. While there is discussion of ESL issues and challenges at the provincial and federal government levels, Friesen says there is a clear lack of an agenda. He indicates a lack of cohesion is getting in the way of progress. "Because we deal with federal and provincial and local jurisdictional responsibilities and other issues, it’s very difficult to develop a provincial agenda that better supports these immigrant youths. In the meantime, teachers are having to deal with the challenges in the classroom." He says the challenges that boards are facing in BC are shared across the country, but without any national dialogue or national agenda on how to support the exploding ESL student population.

Friesen feels teachers are not receiving the education they need to practice their profession. "We have 2,600 teachers coming out of post-secondary teacher training and they only have one core foundational course to deal with ESL work. That’s just one indication, in my opinion, that we’ve fallen behind in how we train teachers. They are handling situations to the best of their ability, but they don’t have the tools to deal with the complexities in their classrooms. And that speaks to how we are training our teachers."

Our lack of preparedness for the future is nothing new to Randy Henderson, past president of the English as a Second Language PSA and Prince George District ESL resource teacher. Henderson was one of the authors of "A Crisis in ESL Education in BC Schools" (bctf.ca/eslpsa), a report compiled and submitted to government earlier this year by the PSA to sound the alarm on the brewing crisis in ESL education across the province. "It highlights the significant erosion in services to ESL students across the province," says Henderson. "We wanted to draw government attention to a situation that is very unsatisfactory for the student. We are dropping the ball in their education."

The report states "ESL learners in BC public schools are rapidly increasing...and now constitute the majority in the larger urban school districts, and are rapidly increasing in numbers in all other jurisdictions of the province." It goes on to say that it is critical "that we support these new learners, our future citizens and taxpayers, as effectively as possible."

The government has not responded to the document.

Henderson says, "We invite immigrants to Canada and want them to become productive citizens and achieve their potential, but are not providing the services for them to do that." With the projected increase in the number of ESL students throughout BC, Henderson agrees with Friesen that a co-ordinated effort needs to be developed.

"I’ve been to settlement discussions where federal officials asked about how they could encourage new immigrants to land somewhere else other than the MTV (Montreal–Toronto–Vancouver) corridor. What’s that going to do? Seems to me there’s more deflection of the problem than addressing it because it doesn’t matter where you have your new immigrants landing or residing, the problem is, what are we going to do and what services are we going to provide as a nation to the people we’re inviting to our country? "

Henderson says that while "it’s just silly" to think a student is going to be touched by a magic wand and learn the language in the five years the government has allotted, consideration and support must also be given to their parents. "The parent issue needs to be part and parcel of some kind of comprehensive plan between provincial and federal governments. Since the federal government is in charge of immigration, it’s they who need to take the bull by the horns and mandate that the provinces provide services to the people we’ve invited into this country."

Henderson says, "take a parent who was a teacher in their homeland but here, is bussing at a restaurant. That’s a huge psychological letdown. And there are lots of immigrant families living in poverty and that creates another set of dilemmas for parents because they’re no longer living their lives long term, they’re living short term, pay cheque to pay cheque."

He points out, "there is no ESL advocacy group for parents or students. Some of these parents are not quick to get into our schools because they come from cultures where institutions like schools are highly respected and know best, and it’s a matter of putting all their confidence and faith in schools to do the best job for their kids. Unfortunately, I’m not seeing that with the programs we’re able to offer."

Friesen asks, "Why don’t we have standardized ESL orientation materials for newcomer parents? How can they advocate on behalf of their kids when they can’t speak English and are not aware of the system?

UBC language and literacy professor, Lee Gunderson, recently studied 5,000 immigrant students in Vancouver. The results are startling: 60% "disappeared" before they completed Grade 12 and 40% dropped out before they graduated.

Gunderson’s research pegs 10% of BC’s student population as identified ESL and Friesen says that’s only going to grow. "It’s projected that over the next five years, 28,000 children will immigrate here every year. That’s half the student population of the entire Vancouver school district."

Yvonne Eamor is the BCTF’s media relations officer.

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