When Syrian refugee students begin to enroll in Hamilton's schools, they will rely on their peers and specialized programs to help integrate into the curriculum and Canadian life. 
'They begin to feel safe and then culture shock happens.' - Bill Torrens, Assistant Principal, Leadership and Learning

"Usually the first few months in Canada we call 'the honeymoon.'

"Everything is great," says Bill Torrens, Assistant Principal in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's Leadership and Learning department.

'They begin to feel safe and then culture shock happens."

The board has several ways of preparing schools and teachers, depending on the circumstances at each school. 

At schools where there is already a significant immigrant or refugee population, there are programs in place and both staff and students are experienced in helping newcomers.

Hess Street School in downtown Hamilton is one such school. It has a large multicultural population of students, many who have recently come to Canada as refugees.

Fitting in and learning

The school's ALPHA program offers junior and intermediate students who have limited or large gaps in their education a chance to accelerate their learning. 

"Students have seen things that no adult should see," says intermediate ALPHA teacher Matt Jackson. "They're trying to process that at the same time as fitting into a new country."

The 12 children in Jackson's classroom are grade six to eight students who have come to Canada in the past four years.

Unlike ESL students who are literate in their first language, the ALPHA class is considered an English Literacy Development (ELD) program.

Mya Aye

Grade 8 student Mya Aye is now fluent in English, years after fleeing Burma, thanks to teachers and fellow students. (Melissa Raftis for CBC)

"When students need an ELD program, which all of my class do, they're not literate or they have some literacy but not a lot in their first language," says Jackson. "You really have to develop oral communication."

To help develop that, Jackson's students take music, physical education and other rotary subjects with their mainstream class, but English math and social studies are taught in ALPHA.

He says Hess Street's diverse population means students are very welcoming of newcomers.

"They're not judgmental because a lot of them have been through it before, " says Jackson. "It's amazing how kids become kids. They learn from their peers very quickly."

Grade 8 student Mya Aye's family came to Hamilton when she was six after fleeing Burma and spending time in a refugee camp.

Aye who now speaks near-perfect English says when she first arrived in Canada she was scared, but her peers helped her adjust quickly.

"A lot of people showed me around. They helped me a lot," Aye says. "I didn't feel like I was the only one that needed some help."

Jackson says the board's buddy system pairs refugee and migrant students with peers who speak the same language to help ease them into life at school. 

Inside the classroom, the ALPHA program relies heavily on visual teaching material and uses learning tools like duel language books and dictionaries with pictures.  

Students also use iPad apps like "Explain Everything," to help make visual presentations and record their own voices.

"You have to become oral to learn a language.

"So if you're going to become literate in English they have to start speaking in English," says Jackson. We get them talking as much as we can."

ESL and social workers help 

For children attending schools that have a smaller migrant population, Torrens says ESL teachers play an important role.

"Kids who are beginners of English will often be supported by an ESL teacher in the regular classroom of 20 or 25 kids or they might come out into a small group," says Torrens. "It might only be 20 minutes a day but it's a touchstone. It really depends on how many kids there are and what their needs are."

There are social workers attached to each school who help migrant and refugee student needs outside the classroom.

Torrens says the board also relies on external groups like Wesley Urban Ministries and the Immigrants Working Centre to help families of students who are having trouble adjusting to their new life.

Wesley Urban Ministries, the city's lead agency for refugee settlement, has met with the board's ESL teachers twice in the last two weeks to provide some cultural background information about the expected Syrian newcomers.

"We really work hard to try to educate our teachers in schools so they can work in a sensitive way around that," says Torrens.

Torrens says he doesn't know how many Syrian children will register, but the board expects the first wave of students to enroll by the time school is back in session in January.