Rainbow District School Board provides positive response to requests from Manitoulin refugee sponsoring group

MANITOULIN—The Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) is taking steps to provide and put in place the necessary personnel and supports to help those new students from Eritrea, who are now living and going to school on Manitoulin Island and need this additional support in developing their English language skills. This comes after a request had been made by the Manitoulin sponsoring group.

“We have good news today to the request that has been made,” said Norm Blaseg, director of education for the RDSB, on Monday. He said the board is looking to hire an itinerant English language teacher on the elementary panel and an English language instructor for the secondary school panel.

Dr. Ben Quackenbush, who is heading up the Island sponsoring group, explained in a letter to Mr. Blaseg, dated March 30, “back in September, the image of a small Syrian boy Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach deeply affected many of us on Manitoulin Island.”

“We were left asking ourselves, ‘What could we do?’ In a  joint effort between churches, communities and individuals we decided to act by sponsoring five refugee families,” wrote Dr. Quackenbush. “We have welcomed four out of the five families to Manitoulin already. These families were fleeing the African country of Eritrea, which has the worst human rights record in the world according to the U.N.” “To escape enslavement and torture at the hand of their governments, the sponsored families fled to refugee camps in Ethiopia, where they have been living for as long as 10-15 years. Many of the children of the sponsored families were born in the refugee camps and given very little opportunity for education,” continued Dr. Quackenbush. 

“The families are being financially and nationally supported by a multitude of people on Manitoulin Island,” continued Dr. Quackenbush. “These sponsorship groups have been working tirelessly to provide furnished accommodations, orientation to Canadian life, assisting the newcomer to set up banking, health care, English classes and employment. We feel that the sponsorship and progress of these families is going exceptionally well in almost all areas except for the students’ education.”

Dr. Quackenbush explained, “six elementary-aged students are enrolled at Little Current and Assiginack Public School, and three more will be enrolling at (Central Manitoulin Public School) shortly. We are extremely pleased with the support shown by the homeroom teachers and are confident that these young students will pick up English quickly in their classrooms.”

“However, we feel that giving the homeroom teachers additional resources and support as well as pull-out programs on early literacy would accelerate their integration into the regular curriculum,” continued Dr. Quackenbush.

“Seven high schools students are now attending MSS,” wrote Dr. Quackenbush. “These students are currently enrolled in more social-based classes such as physical education, music and art. All seven high school students have little or no English. They are learning by interacting with peers and their sponsorship group, but language is a formidable barrier to their progress.”

“We are writing to you to plead for an opportunity for these students, in particular, to have at least one class of English as a second language (ESL) a day. Providing a teacher for one class a day would provide a basis for the future success and independence of these seven students,” continued Dr. Quackenbush. “We are asking that the RDSB would recognize that an ESL class is essential for these students,” he wrote. “We ask that the board would be willing to support our efforts to assist these new students in becoming independent Canadians. Because of the low level of English language abilities that these students have, we believe that a classroom teacher is the best avenue to provide their learning. We have looked at other classes and independent learning cases, but we feel these are inappropriate for the current level of these students.”

“Would you please consider supporting these students by hiring a teacher with ESL credentials for this position?” continued Dr. Quackenbush. “We are also asking that this be done quickly to make the most of the time we still have in the school year. The reality is that next year, once the financial capacity of our refugee sponsorship is over, some of these students will be forced to withdraw from studies or cut down on their course load so that they can be financial breadwinners in their home. Many of these high schools students have elderly widowed mothers who will not be able to support their families through employment. We feel the next few months are crucial for the English education of these high school students. Thank you for your continued support of the schools and the communities of Manitoulin.”

Mr. Blaseg told the Recorder, “it is quite common with all those who are supporting Syrian refugees that sponsors of other refugees come forward with requests for the same supports. In this case it involves students from Eritrea and I agree they should be provided the same treatment, although I’m not sure if they have been officially recognized by the federal government.”

“We, as a board, recognize that these out of country students do not come to Canada with the same toolset in terms of language and the nuances of the country that those originally from Canada do,” said Mr. Blaseg. “The requests that have been made are not unreasonable, but there are challenges inherent with this. Do we have the financial resources and personnel with the skill set to provide this? We have been doing a lot of work to see if we can come up with the money for these requests, and we think we can, to support the students both in elementary and secondary schools.”

“The itinerant teachers at the elementary level we know we can provide that support, and on the secondary school level the request for a teacher for one period, we are not sure we are able to facilitate. But we will be able to get an English language support instructor to support these folks, working with the principal and hiring someone,” continued Mr. Blaseg.

Mr. Blaseg said the board is also seeking government funding to provide the supports. “If the funding is not there, we will have to find a way to support the students and will put our heads together looking at the dollars for this, or looking at existing resources. But we think we can provide for an itinerant teacher on the elementary level and an English language instructor for the secondary panel.”

“The best possible scenario is for the students to become immersed in the English speaking population at our schools,” said Mr. Blaseg.

Local RDSB Trustee Larry Killens said, “in speaking on behalf of myself, not the board, I appreciate the letter from Dr. Quackenbush and acknowledge him, and other members of the refugee committee, for the immigrants and as well welcome them.”

“Having said that I feel our board has gone leaps and bounds in accommodating anyone, immigrants or should they be refugees, in the board’s planning, they are definitely included in the future plans of the board,” said Mr. Killens. “We have made many plans and included funding in these plans to go ahead. I’m somewhat disappointed that it seems as if the group is making a demand of the board, we have been very cognitive of the needs of the students (from Eritrea) and all others and have sought out their needs in meetings in Mindemoya, Gore Bay and Manitowaning and Little Current.”

Mr. Killens noted that he is going to meet the students and welcome them to Canada and be available for any questions they may have.