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Saskatoon News

Diversity skyrockets in Saskatoon schools

Hearing six or seven different languages in one classroom the new normal
Reported by Ashley Wills
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Classrooms in Saskatoon are sounding much different today than they were a few years ago.
 
Roughly 50 per cent of new students registered this year in both Catholic and public schools are not Canadian. Some schools have students from nearly 50 different countries -- others have more than 100 first languages.
 
"Suddenly the world is coming into the classroom," said Donnalee Weinmaster, superintendent of Saskatoon Public Schools.
 
Historically there were pockets of English language learners in certain classrooms, but it is now normal to have six or seven different languages in one classroom.
 
In 2007 there were about 276 students across the Greater Saskatoon Catholic School division who required English as an additional language (EAL) teaching. Today there are nearly 1,400.
 
Diane Cote, superintendent of education for the division, said that a lot of students come to class with social language and are able to carry conversations. But it's the language of school and terminology used in lessons that becomes a challenge for English language learners. Cote said teachers are spending more time on vocabulary.
 
EAL teachers often work with classroom teachers to help break down the lessons. In other cases, students are pulled from class for more focused studies.
 
The numbers are similar in the public system. EAL teachers are encouraged to become certified in teaching English as an additional language. Those classes can be obtained through the extension division through the University of Saskatchewan.
 
"We're even seeing some of our classroom teachers taking these classes too," said Weinmaster.
 
"It just increases their knowledge with regards to working with students where English is not their first language," she said.
 
Weinmaster added that teachers have told her that many newcomers are highly motivated. Families’ value education, they see it as a stepping stone to further opportunities.
 
"We are up there with the best schools on the planet. I think that's one of the major reasons why these young families are choosing to come to Saskatoon," said John McGettigan, president of the Saskatoon Teachers' Association (STA).
 
According to STA there have been 3,500 students added to the system in the past two years.
 
"Which is 10 elementary schools, for example" said McGettigan.
 
With increased enrollment come the complexities of space. Weinmaster said that public schools are getting creative and in some cases are using portable classrooms.
 
But the benefits far outweigh the challenges.
 
“This diversity is so rich in our schools, it helps our Canadian-born students become more informed about the world around them,” said Weinmaster.
 
“They’re making friends with students from different cultures and they’re seeing that students are coming in with two or three languages.”
 
Shauna Tilbury is the EAL co-ordinator for the public school division. She said hundreds of families come to the Newcomer Student Centre in Saskatoon each year for information about how the system works. The centre also provides language assessment for new students, which is sent to their school.
 
“We really do encourage our families to keep their languages and continue to practice their cultures,” Tilbury said.
 
“Research tells us that if a student has a strong base in their first language, then that will help them learn an additional language,” she said.
 
“We have quite a large number of students this year coming from Pakistan, they speak Urdu there. China, so there’s Mandarin and Cantonese that’s spoken. We have a fairly large population from the Philippines, they speak Tagalog. There’s Hindi, there’s Swahili, there’s Arabic,” said Tilbury.
 
“There are more languages than I can even name.”
 
awills@rawlco.com
 
Follow on Twitter: @ashwillsee