Syrian quitting school is a sign more English help needed in rural Nova Scotia, group says

Morris Haugg says he knows of one Syrian refugee who's dropped out of high school after finding learning English too frustrating. In another case, a 10-year-old-girl had never been in a classroom before arriving in Nova Scotia.

These are just some of the challenges the chair of the Cumberland County Refugee Networking Group says young Syrians in rural areas of the province are facing as they tackle the task of learning English.

And while refugee families are receiving support for housing, transportation and food, Haugg argues there are too few language training resources in schools outside the metro Halifax area.

"Language training is something that somehow … seems to have been overlooked and is underrated, and it's recognized by us as the biggest hurdle right now," he told CBC Nova Scotia's Information Morning.

'Has never been to school'

There are 21 Syrian students registered with the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board, up from 12 in 2015-16. There are 74 schools in the school board, whose area includes Cumberland County.

Several students in the area are struggling to learn an unfamiliar language, said Haugg, including the high school student who dropped out.

"It was just not an experience that he could cope with."

Others students are falling behind as they've been placed in the grade suitable for their age, but have no experience attending school.

"One family that I'm familiar with has a 10 year old … She was in a refugee camp in Lebanon and has never been to school," Haugg said. "Her older brother hasn't been to school for three or four years."

Need higher than anticipated

An Arabic-speaking English-as-an-additional-language teacher hired by the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board initially only worked one day a week.

After the Cumberland County Refugee Networking Group pointed out there were too few resources for language training, the school board increased that teacher's workload to four days a week.

Stephanie Isenor-Ryan, director of programs and student services with the school board, said the need for English language instruction has been greater than anticipated. But she said students have access to a support network, which includes the language teacher, classroom teacher and community volunteers.

"It doesn't all fall just on our EAL teacher, it's our classroom teacher and all of the folks in the school," she said.

Not blaming teachers

The school board, Isenor-Ryan said, will be weighing the need for language training resources when working towards the staffing of its schools for the 2017-2018 year.

Haugg said when resources that support Syrian newcomers are being allocated, they should go where they're most needed — in the classroom.

He said he doesn't blame the school board or teachers, but rather it's the federal and provincial governments that have "not recognized that language training is as important to this whole picture as is providing housing and transportation and other help."