12 – Integration of Newcomers in Saskatchewan Schools: The Role of Settlement Workers

Victoria Oldershaw

Introduction

Saskatchewan welcomes thousands of immigrants to the province every year. In 2014 these immigrants increased the province’s population growth by 76%, with the addition of 11,826 newcomers (Ministry of the Economy Government of Saskatchewan, 2014). Although the majority of immigrants entering Saskatchewan settle in large urban centers such as Regina and Saskatoon, the Government of Saskatchewan reported that “from 2012 to 2014, 292 Saskatchewan communities saw the arrival of immigrants who were migrating from 158 different countries” (Ministry of the Economy Government of Saskatchewan, 2014, p. 5).

Newcomers seek to contribute positively to their new communities, but there are challenges immigrants face regarding settlement and integration.  As immigrant populations continue to grow in the province, there is a need for settlement and integration programs that target school-aged newcomers attending schools in Saskatchewan, especially in smaller urban centers and rural communities.   A collaborative approach is recommended – one that links settlement service providers, Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS), and communities across the province – in order to help newcomer families with children to navigate and succeed in a new culture and education system.

Rationale for Social Inclusion and Integration of Newcomers

Omidvar & Richmond stressed that “social inclusion” is an important part of the settlement and integration process for new immigrants, describing the need to “dismantle barriers” and “risks” by focusing on “basic notions of belonging, acceptance, and recognition (2003, p. 1).  Successful social inclusion of newcomers to a country “would be represented by the realization of full and equal participation in the economic, social, cultural and political dimensions of life in their new country” (Omidvar & Richmond, 2003, p. 1).  Settlement services within Saskatchewan communities aid immigrants in the social inclusion process; “the provision of these services is essential both to ensuring the effective settlement of newcomers and maintaining public support for the continuing high levels of immigration” (Omidvar & Richmond, 2003, p. 7).  The Government of Saskatchewan funds eleven Newcomer Gateways located in urban centers with varying populations. These Service Providing Organizations (SPOs) offer settlement and integration services to newcomers across the province.  These SPOs offer services relating to housing, employment, education, health, transportation, budgeting and finance, and social supports such as connecting newcomers with community groups that share ethno-cultural background, faith, language, or interests.

Settlement Needs and Integration of School-Aged Children

Many immigrants settling in communities all over the province include families with school-aged children.  For many immigrant families, “the challenges of resettlement may appear overwhelming.  These challenges may include the language, cultural differences and conflicts, economic difficulties, problems in finding suitable work, or in the case of children, feelings of loneliness and difficulties associated with school” (Coelho, 2012, p. 11).  In 2009 the majority of the 2,424 immigrant children and youth (age 19 and younger) who immigrated to Saskatchewan “require[d] support to learn an official language. Almost two thirds, or 1,566 children and youth, had no knowledge of either official language of Canada upon their arrival” (Saskatchewan Ministry of Education, 2010, p. 14).  A lack of knowledge of the official languages used in Saskatchewan schools can pose a challenge for newcomer children and youth, but “it is important to remember that students from around the world bring with them complete communication systems, individual differences, and rich cultural backgrounds” (Helmer & Eddy, 2012, p. 15).  As such, there is a continued need for supportive settlement and integration programs that help immigrant youth navigate a new culture and education system, while respecting the dignity of each individual.

As noted by Coelho, immigrating to a new country is a “life-changing experience” (2012, p. 8).  Immigrant families and their “children who end up in classrooms in North America…have lived through a period of transition that may have been very difficult, and now they face new challenges as they adjust to their new environment” (Coelho, 2012, p. 8).  Helmer & Eddy stressed that there may be “enormous differences among school systems” (2012, p. 59) that families have emigrated from; differences include “the way they are organized, the way instruction occurs, and the extent to which they conform with the cultural norms of a given society” (2012, p. 59). The Saskatchewan Annual Integration Summit reported that in K-12 education, there are “many challenges newcomers face within the school system” such as a lack of support for students with limited formal schooling or students who are “not familiar with the school structure” (Saskatchewan Annual Integration Summit Report, 2018, p. 10).   Due to the challenges young immigrants and their families face, “it is important [for schools] to provide initial and ongoing orientation to the school system for students and parents, and to be explicit about norms and expectations, so that students understand the roles and relationships in their new school environment” (Coelho, 2012, p. 1).

For immigrant families with children, registering students in school is one of the first challenges of settlement. Initial contact with schools can affect a family’s impression and perception of the new education system.  Coelho highlighted how important it is for schools to “create a good first impression and establish a good relationship from the start” (2012, p. 19).  A good first impression for families takes “careful planning”, involving “all members of the school community” (Coelho, 2012, p. 19).  In an ideal setting, successful intake for newcomer families includes “a school team that will coordinate all aspects of newcomer reception, assessment, and orientation” (Coelho, 2012, p. 22), involving the welcoming of immigrant families and their children to the school system.

Settlement/Intake Services for Newcomer Students in Large Urban Centers vs. Smaller Communities in Saskatchewan

Successful intake programs “ensure that all families feel welcomed and their questions regarding the school division and the school are answered” (Anderson & Tilbury, 2014, p. 90).  This can be an “involved process for families who are new to the country and for whom English is not the first language” (Anderson & Tilbury, 2014, p. 90).  Major urban centers in Saskatchewan have well-established intake centers for newcomer students enrolling in school.  One of Saskatchewan’s largest cities and its school division has a centralized Newcomer Student Center (NSC) open to all students who are newcomers to Canada and to the school division, and who speak a language other than English.  A directive of the NSC is to “provide a welcoming environment where [families] can learn about [the] school system, about [English as an Additional Language] programming and about supports for their children, so that the transition to school will be positive” (Anderson & Tilbury, 2014, p. 90).  The NSC is necessary to meet the needs of ever-increasing enrollment of school-aged newcomers and their families to the city.  By providing a centralized intake process in a welcoming and supportive atmosphere, immigrant families and their children have more opportunities for successful social inclusion in their new communities.

Even though smaller communities in Saskatchewan welcome fewer newcomers each year, this does not mean that the need for settlement and integration services is any less significant.  Most school divisions in the province, particularly those serving smaller urban centers and rural communities, do not have centralized intake for new immigrants and English as an Additional Language (EAL) students.  This poses a challenge for many schools and the staff assigned to welcoming new enrollments of EAL students and newcomers to Canada.  In some cases, enrollment of immigrant and EAL newcomers in school is no different than that of all other students entering the school system.  As such, little to no additional support is provided to immigrant families, when schools do not have a coordinated system for welcoming newcomers.

Research conducted at the Rural Development Institute, Brandon University (2015) focused on the need for expanded settlement and integration services in western Canada, including those for families with school-aged children.  The study found that “all of the communities sampled across western Canada identified that all or most of the services offered in the communities needed to expand in order to meet the demand” (2015, p. 18).  Continued research in this field focused on Saskatchewan:

Some respondents reiterated that services needed most by this particular group of newcomers were more readily accessible in the larger centers with full–fledged settlement service organizations and key mainstream service organizations than in the smaller communities that did not have such organizations. (2015, p. 17)

There is a definite need for additional and expanded settlement and integration services for newcomer youth and their parents.  Omidvar & Richmond recommended that “recent research and program developments suggest that the school system is the natural location for such programs” (2003, p. 17).

Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS)

Services such as the federally-funded Settlement Workers in Schools program (SWIS) benefit newcomer students and their families as they navigate the challenges of settling in a new country with school-aged children who are entering the education system.  The Saskatchewan SWIS program is described as,

…a partnership of the local Boards of Education, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and a Service Providing Organization. It is a school based outreach program designed to help newcomer students and their families settle in their school and community. (“Saskatchewan SWIS Coordination”, 2018)

In Saskatchewan, six of the eleven Newcomer Gateways (as described earlier) located in large urban centres have designated SWIS workers, who work together with partnered school divisions in their designated locations.

SWIS allows for more comprehensive programming and support for newcomer students and their families; “the first few years in Canada are particularly difficult for newcomer students and their families. SWIS connects newly arrived families to services and resources in the school and community in order to promote settlement and foster student achievement” (“Saskatchewan SWIS Coordination”, 2018).  According to a SWIS worker who currently works in a Saskatchewan community (see Appendix A for interview questions):

SWIS is an entry point for the newly arrived as we work to connect them to the broad range of services offered by the settlement agency and other community services, and at school will meet the families at their arrival at student services, do a tour of the school, find an interpreter if is needed, ask for information/transcripts related to previous education, do bus registration and also explain the essential school information and refer the newcomer to appropriate school staff as necessary. (personal communication, June 12, 2018)

From the perspective of an EAL teacher in Saskatchewan (see Appendix A for interview questions):

…the role of the SWIS worker is flexible and is negotiated with the school/staff they work with…the settlement workers handle all things connected to settling newcomers and their families – specially related to school…settlement workers provide a safe space for students…students may go to them with questions/concerns about life and school. (EAL Teacher Respondent 1, personal communication, June 12, 2018)

The SWIS worker interviewed also emphasized the need to “provide a service that respects the rights and dignity of the students, without discrimination, understanding that each student’s unique background needs to be taken into consideration” (personal communication, June 12, 2018).

Benefits of SWIS Programming for all Stakeholders

Programs like SWIS benefit school divisions, adding much needed support to the workload of English as an Additional Language (EAL) specialists and teachers, particularly with the intake and integration of immigrant students.  In schools without external support of SPOs, the roles and responsibilities, as noted by the SWIS worker above, are delegated to the EAL teacher/specialist (if available), or other school staff.  When asked about how the implementation of a SWIS worker benefits the professional workload of EAL teachers, EAL Teacher Respondent 1 replied as follows:

There is no question that SWIS has benefited our EAL teaching staff.  If the EAL teacher has a full-time teaching schedule and there are high numbers of newcomers, then it is impossible to fulfill all the students’ needs completely and effectively.  It is important to remember that newcomers may arrive at any time during the year and may show up at a school any time of day.  Thus, the EAL teacher cannot set aside a specific day or time at the beginning of a semester to help with registration, orientation for families and do language assessments. It can be stressful and ‘hurried’ to be called out of class to help a new student when they show up mid-semester.  As a result, there is undue pressure on the teacher and the newcomer does not receive the support they require.  SWIS workers also provide a ‘missing piece’ or valuable information about students that the teacher might not know.  Because settlement workers work with families and have ‘case files’ they might know information, such as whether a student has a hearing problem.  Having a team to work with is critical with the numerous, ongoing needs newcomers have. (personal communication, June 12, 2018)

A SWIS worker is an integral team member within a successful school community that strives to meet the needs of all its students.

As a member of the school community, a SWIS worker can be a “role model and mentor who provides a significant amount of mental and emotional support to newcomer students” (EAL Teacher Respondent 2, personal communication, June 12, 2018).  When asked about the impact a SWIS worker has had on his/her professional practice, EAL Teacher Respondent 2 explained that:

SWIS has relieved the workload of the EAL teachers, within the school, by providing students with a trusted adult who can support them with daily ‘life’ activities that newcomers to Canada may have difficulty with. Instead of teachers spending their day setting up doctor’s appointments, phoning SGI [driver’s education], or contacting home about extracurricular activities happening that weekend, SWIS is another adult who can help with these responsibilities…this in turn frees up the teacher to focus on planning lessons that help our students with language acquisition. (personal communication, June 12, 2018)

It is important to note that a SWIS worker does not take on any role related to teaching and instruction, as this is the domain of the EAL teacher and school staff, but the role is an integral part of a successful school program.  A SWIS worker’s partnership with school staff ensures more comprehensive and ongoing support for vulnerable newcomer students.  EAL Teacher Respondent 2 explained how the SWIS worker affiliated with his/her school is “connected with each of the student’s families, and makes home visits” (personal communication, June 12, 2018).  Respondent 2 also noted how this provides “additional insight into our students’ lives that can help build empathy when teaching” (personal communication, June 12, 2018).   Collaboration and communication between SWIS workers and EAL teachers helps build bridges with newcomers and their families.  Helmer & Eddy stressed that “taking time to find out where EAL learners are on the path of cultural adjustment and consistently communicating with them enables us to find areas of commonality” (2012, p. 19). Therefore, ongoing support and connections between SWIS workers, students and their families, and teaching staff are advantageous for all stakeholders in the settlement and integration process. Both EAL teacher respondents who were interviewed expressed the essential need for a SWIS worker in their school, in that this not only benefited students and families, but also EAL teachers and school staff.

Continued Need for Settlement Support in Saskatchewan Communities

SWIS programming and other settlement services for students are currently in place in urban centers in Saskatchewan, but the need extends to many more Saskatchewan communities.  A SWIS worker is non-partisan, affiliated with a SPO, and as such, can provide services to many schools, including public and Catholic school divisions, within one community.  Often population numbers of newcomer students are not high enough for centralized intake, settlement, and integration support. Even without a centralized intake center, a SWIS worker assigned to an SPO in a community can support newcomer students and their families in that community and surrounding areas.   As noted earlier, settlement services, and particularly SWIS workers, provide the ‘missing piece’ that many school divisions currently need.  As a federally-funded program, more communities in the province need to foster community partnerships with SPOs and school divisions need to take advantage of this service.

Identifying Needs in My Community

In my own professional practice, as an EAL Lead Teacher at a Saskatchewan school of over 900 students and in a division serving over 5,000 students, there is a very clear need for settlement and integration services for newcomer youth attending schools in my community.  I began my role as EAL Lead Teacher one year ago, meaning I take on the role of program planning for all EAL students in my school.  Currently, no centralized intake for newcomers is in place at the school level nor the division level.  Each school in my division is responsible for aiding newcomer students and families with registration and integration in the school system.  Although each school does its best to help immigrant families and children navigate the challenges of attending a new school in a new country, little professional training or knowledge is provided to staff at the division level.  This is concerning, since levels of immigration in my community continue to rise.

I can relate to and empathize with the EAL Teacher Respondents interviewed, in that the role of an EAL teacher often takes on more responsibilities than just classroom instruction.  Currently I aid in registration, meeting with families, school orientation, initial and ongoing language assessment, academic monitoring, and social and emotional support. Many of these roles are beyond my professional scope; for example, I have spent hours working with families who were having difficulties with immigration documents, something I know very little about, but as many teachers do, I feel compelled to help families in need.  It has been a challenge balancing my work load, when my primary focus should be within the domain of language instruction of EAL learners.

At the division level I have proposed the need for a SWIS worker in my community, to serve the needs of the many immigrant students entering and attending school.  I am pleased that administration at my school and superintendents at the division level also understand this need.   My school division plans to work jointly with our local Newcomer Gateway and another school division within my community to apply for a federally-funded SWIS worker.  I am confident that a SWIS worker will be in place in my community in years to come, adding a much needed team member that will aid in settlement and integration to ensure both social and academic success of newcomer students in my community.

 

References

Anderson, L., & Tilbury, S. (2014). Initial intake and assessment of EAL learners. In Education Matters: The Journal of Teaching and Learning, 2(1), (88-94). Open Journal Systems.

Coelho, E. (2012). Language and learning in multilingual classrooms: A practical approach. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Helmer, S., & Eddy, C. (2012). Look at me when I talk to you: EAL learners in non-EAL classrooms. Don Mills, Ont.: Pippin.

Ministry of the Economy Government of Saskatchewan. (2014). Saskatchewan Statistical Immigration Report 2012 to 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.publications.gov.sk.ca/details.cfm?p=81367

Omidvar, R., & Richmond, T. (2003). Immigrant settlement and social inclusion in Canada. Retrieved from https://laidlawfdn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/wpsosi_2003_jan_immigrant-settlement.pdf

Rural Development Institute. (2015). Immigration settlement services and gaps in citizenship and immigration Canada’s western region. Brandon University. Retrieved from: https://www.brandonu.ca/rdi/files/2015/09/Western-Canada-report.May-2015.pdf

Rural Development Institute. (2015). Immigration settlement services and gaps in 5 selected regional communities in Saskatchewan. Brandon University. Retrieved from: https://www.brandonu.ca/rdi/files/2015/09/Western-Canada-report.May-2015.pdf 

Saskatchewan Association of Immigrant Settlement and Integration Agencies (SAISA).(2017). Saskatchewan annual integration summit report. Retrieved from:  https://www.saisia.ca/ckfinder/userfiles/files/SAISIA%202017%20Annual%20Integration%20Summit%20Final%20Report.pdf

Saskatchewan Ministry of Education. (2010). 2010 Saskatchewan education indicators report. Retrieved from: http://yourfairshare.ca/files/2011/09/2010-Saskatchewan-Education-Indicators-FINAL.pdf

 Saskatchewan SWIS Coordination. (2018). Website. Retrieved from http://swissask.ca/