Immigrant students new challenge for P.E.I. schools

With almost one in 20 students in P.E.I. schools now coming from other countries, the Island's education system is continuing to adjust.

From China to P.E.I.: Part three in a series looking at Chinese immigration

Sherry Covey is one of two full-time English as an additional language teachers at Colonel Gray High School in Charlottetown, and one of 17 on P.E.I. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

With almost one in 20 students in P.E.I. schools now coming from other countries, the Island's education system is continuing to adjust.

Many Island school populations have been transformed in the past decade. Of the approximately 20,000 enrolled in elementary and secondary schools on P.E.I., nearly 1,000 are international students. More than a third of those are from China. The Department of Education only began to recognize the need to adjust to that influx in 2006.

"Immigration started to increase, families and students arrived, but with no planning," said Janet Perry-Payne, the Department of Education's English as an additional language administrator.

"They would show up at a school, the school wouldn't know what to do with them. [They] would take a transcript, put a student in a classroom, but with no idea of their language level."

Spring Park School grade six teacher Maureen Diamond (CBC)

So the Education Department created a newcomer reception centre for students of all ages, which Payne is now in charge of.

"We determine what their English language proficiency is before we start them in the school system," said Payne.

"We actually go with the students to the school to register the students, so the school knows at the point of contact what the needs are for the students."

While schools now have a much better idea of what they're dealing with when a new student steps in the classroom, they are still often faced with a student with little or no understanding of English.

"Humbling is a word you have to think about," said grade six teacher Maureen Diamond.

"You think of yourself in that position as an adult, how hard it would be to go into a country where you don't understand a word being spoken."

Diamond has been teaching for 18 years, and is currently at Spring Park School in Charlottetown. Eight of her 24 students are from other countries.

"We wind up resorting to a lot of gestures, sometimes drawing pictures, diagrams, and so on," she said.

"Certainly they require more small group work, more one-on-one. All those things we can do to try and help, as you would any student who is having trouble learning anything."

Science a struggle

Jonny Wu arrived on the Island a year and a half ago. He is now in grade 10 at Colonel Gray High School in Charlottetown, one of about 50 Chinese students at the school.

Jonny Wu (right) says learning scientific terminology, in English, is a challenge. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

Wu had learned some English in school in China, but still found the regular classes in P.E.I. difficult.

"I'm not good at science, because in China we speak Chinese for science class, but here we speak English, and there are lots of words I don't know, and can't understand," he said.

At Colonel Gray, Wu gets helps with his English from Sherry Covey, one of two full-time EAL teachers at the school, and 17 in the English Language School Board.

Organizing a system of EAL teachers was among the changes made in 2006. Four were hired for the next year, and that number grew to peak at 23 in 2010. Demand for the service was lower than anticipated, and the complement was lowered to 17.

Covey teaches several classes a day, with students divided up by level of English proficiency.

"They're with me every single day for 75 minutes," said Covey.

"We work on reading, writing, listening, and speaking. A lot of it is trial and error, and sometimes it's about using the computer and finding pictures.  We go from the very beginning and build on that very slowly. It's a lot of repetition, a lot of practice, a lot of talking, a lot of laughing."

After a year and a half on the Island, Wu is one of Covey's advanced EAL students.

"Now I can talk with Canadians, and I can understand them," he said.

"If I can't understand them, I will ask and they will tell me. That's really easy to communicate."

Covey said for many immigrant students the regular daily classes, where they spend most of their time, are a challenge.

"It's really hard on them, especially when they first come and they're in all these other classes and don't really understand anything," she said.

"You can see how sad they feel in the first couple weeks."

Aiming for university

English language skills are crucial to these students' goals. For many of the families that have moved here from China, giving their children a better chance at a good university education was one of the principal reasons for moving to Canada.

Having the students feel comfortable in Canadian Society is a good news story for everyone, says Janet Perry-Payne. (Steve Bruce/CBC)

That means getting good marks in Grade 12 English, along with all the other courses, said Colonel Gray vice principal Rosemary Fleming.

"The greatest challenge is to get marks high enough in the EAL courses that will support them all the way through to the end of Grade 12, and end up with a Grade 12 mark that's high enough to be accepted into university," said Fleming.

She said some students wind up taking an extra year of high school, and others take courses over the summer. Remarkably, she said, most do achieve their goals.

Grade 10 student Adrian Chen said he is determined to keep improving his English not just so he can get into university, but so he can fit in better and improve his social life.

"I feel happy if I speak fluent English," said Chen.

"I feel happy if I talk more in English, make more friends.  I feel good to be here."

Statements like that make Perry-Payne feel the money the Education Department spends on EAL support is more than justified. That amount has doubled in the past seven years, to nearly $3 million.

"If these children and their families decide to stay on P.E.I., they have the ability to be contributing members of our community, to be productive," she said.

Giving the students an opportunity to feel like a part of Canadian society, said Perry-Payne, is a good news story for everyone.


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