Saturday, 10 October 2015 06:41

As many as one-quarter of all Edmonton students learning English as second language

Written by Edmonton Journal
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The number of students learning English as a second language is exploding in Edmonton, comprising 24 per cent of students in the public district and 21 per cent of students in the Catholic district.

The rate of growth is stunning: in Edmonton Public Schools, the number of English language learners has more than quintupled in the past 10 years, to 21,418 in 2014 from 4,000 in 2004.

The Edmonton Catholic School District is recording similar growth. In 2014, there were 7,800 English language learners, compared to 2,100 a decade ago.

The students are native speakers of Tagalog, Somali, Arabic, Spanish and Punjabi, among dozens of other languages. They sometimes arrive with no English skills, and the group may comprise almost half of a school’s population.

“Children are very resilient and they learn very quickly,” said Karen Fabris, assistant principal of One World, One Centre, a welcome centre for immigrant students and their families who are entering the Catholic School District.

But the growth has led both districts to adapt, with new programs and services to ensure students thrive. Both districts now operate welcome centres and employ more English language consultants to help teachers. English language learners are typically fully integrated into mainstream classrooms.

“Every teacher is an ESL teacher,” Fabris said.

This might mean that labels are placed on every item in a classroom, or that every math lesson also includes a vocabulary lesson.

At Jackson Heights School in Mill Woods, 40 per cent of students are coded as English language learners. Pam Schenk teaches Grade 2 and ensures that visual cues are included on every piece of paper handed to students, be it an agenda, a schedule or a page of vocabulary.

“It helps everyone. In Grade 2, they’re all learning to read,” she said.

At Jackson Heights, it’s likely there will always be another student who speaks the same language as a struggling classmate. “Peer assisted learning” works well to help those new students get through lessons or feel welcome on the playground, Schenk said.

The provincial government provides five years of additional funding to support English language learners. The funding became a public issue earlier this year when the budget tabled by the previous PC government included a 3.1-per-cent cut for ESL students.

In a rare move, school boards from across the province rallied to protest those cuts, among others. The NDP government restored funding later this year.

Research has shown that it takes between three and five years for a student to achieve basic conversational skills in English, said Marlene Hanson, supervisor of diversity education and comprehensive school health at Edmonton Public Schools.

It takes between five and seven years for students to achieve full academic proficiency in English.

Last year, Edmonton Public Schools expanded its inclusive learning teams to include access to an English language consultant at every school.

“Our schools are serving diverse populations and it’s a reflection of our inclusive, diverse society. It strengthens our schools and classrooms.”

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