New Brunswick

Schools in N.B. try new way to bring newcomer students into school life

For some newcomers to Canada, entering a school is like walking onstage for the first time. This year, New Brunswick schools are trying to help them avoid stumbles.

With some newcomers missing many years of school, an extra year is the difference between sinking and swimming

Newcomer students at St. Malachy's High School in Saint John learn the language and culture for up to a year before joining typical classes. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

A school day is routine. Home room, bell rings, grab books from locker, go to the next class. A well-orchestrated dance every child and teen in the country knows.

But for some newcomers to Canada, entering a school is like walking onstage for the first time. And typically, they're expected to stumble until they learn the rhythm.

But this year, schools in New Brunswick are trying to find a better way to integrate newcomer students into school life.

With some kids coming to the province with large gaps in their schooling, and most having learned a much different routine, the districts and government are trying to give the kids some rehearsal time.

The students are offered a so-called prep-year, where they still go to school but have a modified curriculum, where they learn the language and the culture first. 

Newcomer students explore the city as part of their prep year before joining regular classes. (Submitted by Connie O'Hearon)

At St. Malachy's High School in Saint John, a handful of students from different continents watch language videos, hear about Canadian history and learn how to buy lunch at the market.

Connie O'Hearon, their teacher, said some students started this year with as few as three English words.

"Even in the last month I've seen them loosen their edges and become more alive," she said. "They can feel comfortable around their peers when they go into a classroom later on, because they're learning the greetings, the language, the culture."

She said their ability to have better peer relationships when they have the language will have a big impact on their mental health.

"They'll fit in more inclusively versus being on the outside, not knowing what's going on."

Newcomer students marked the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Saint John as Canadian history is part of their modified curriculum. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Students from Sudan, Rwanda, Syria

Asawir Omar, a Sudanese refugee who came to Canada by way of Jordan, had to leave school at Grade 6. Now she's hoping to start up again in Grade 10, but she's got to catch up. She wants to be a doctor when she grows up, and she can't do  that without school.

"It's been my dream since I was little," she said in Arabic.

When asked what's been the biggest challenge in coming to school, she simply said "maths," with a laugh.

Cloudine Nyiraminani had also missed a lot of school. In Malawi, Rwanda, school was overcrowded, with 100 or 150 students per class, so it was more beneficial to stay home and help her family. Her family came to Saint John in July, and now she's 19 and hoping to finalize her diploma while she learns English.

"I'm comfortable with our teacher, and everything is going good," she said in English.

"It's very different [here] … I think it's better."

Connie O'Hearon teaches a group of newcomer students the basics before they have to follow the regular curriculum. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Fatima Othman attends the class with her brother. They came to Saint John from Syria by way of Turkey, and the last time she was in school was 2016. She said school was easier back then because it was in Arabic.

"Language is the biggest thing," she said in Arabic. Now she's working to learn English in school, as well as at home by watching movies and listening to music.

"I feel among friends, among people I love. My biggest dream was to finish school, and now my dream is coming true."

When she grows up she wants to be famous, she said, but she's not sure how. She just knows she wants a lot of people to know her name.

"I haven't decided yet," she said. "As soon as I learn the language it will get easier."

Provincewide initiative

St. Malachy's principal Brad Stevens said this new initiative is happening provincewide and is funded by the province in partnership with the districts. He said they've added a full-time teacher to each high-population school to support the newcomer students. 

Some students need to stay in the class for the whole year, but others can join the larger cohort of students within months,  depending on their needs.

"It has a significant impact to provide a sheltered space and opportunity for students to kind of get their their feet under them," he said.

St. Malachy's principal Brad Stevens says this provincewide initiative adds one teacher to high-population schools to help intergrade newcomer students. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

Over the last seven to eight years, a significant number of newcomer students have come to the school, he said, and they're coming from all parts of the world. 

"I would say that our international population has increased substantially, where we would be looking at 10 to 15 per cent of our student population," he said. 

"Out of a cohort of 900 students, we'd have 100 150 international students, which is significantly different than over the previous 15 years."


Hadeel Ibrahim is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at


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