Family: Enrolling Your Child in School

By Michael Skeet

This story first appeared in issue three. As with many of our stories, the topic and advice are timeless.

"Education is important," says Ken Yan. "The child's future depends on education." Ken is glad that it is so easy to place children in good schools in Canada.

"We think our school is a good one," says Mahabub Hossain. He and his wife, who moved to Toronto from Bangladesh, have three children in school: an eight year old son, and seven year old twins (a boy and a girl). "Getting our children into school was easy," Mahabub says.

Newcomers Guide to Elementary School

At www.settlement.org/edguide, you will find the Newcomer's Guide to Elementary School. It is available for both Public and Catholic school boards in HTML or PDF formats. You can download all or part of each document or just read it online.

This guide provides information and suggestions that will help you establish good communication with your child's teacher and the school. It will make the adjustment to a different school system as smooth as possible and explain how your involvement will help your child be a successful student.

The guide is based on the comments of many newcomers and teachers about what a newcomer parent needs to know when his or her child starts school in Ontario. While written for Ontario parents - most of the advice is useful, no matter where you live in Canada.

In this guide, the word "parent" is meant to include guardians, caregivers, and other family members.

In addition to the English version, the guide is available in eighteen languages: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese (traditional and simplified scripts), Croatian, Farsi, French, Gujarati, Hindi, Korean, Pashtu, Pilipino, Punjabi, Russian, Serbian, Somali, Spanish, Tamil and Urdu.

The Canadian Paediatric Society site "Caring for Kids New to Canada" has lots of other great links and resources for newcomer parents.

Ken and Jin Yan had no trouble registering their son for school, despite the fact that they had only just moved and the school was full.

The Yans, who are from China, didn't move into their new house in Richmond Hill until a week before school started. "We phoned the school board," Ken says, "and they gave us the phone number of the school."

Schools in Ontario are run by school boards. School boards are responsible for making rules and policies that govern how schools work and who can attend them. There are two types of school board in Ontario: public boards and Catholic boards. Both types welcome students from all backgrounds, but the Catholic boards base their teaching beliefs on the Roman Catholic form of the Christian religion.

If you live in or around Toronto and you are a permanent resident of Canada, all of your children who are between the ages of six and sixteen must attend school. Most students attend public schools - schools that do not charge tuition because they are supported by taxes. Most students in Ontario study in English. There are about 100,000 students who study in French.

The type of school your child attends depends on his or her age. Children between the ages of six and thirteen attend elementary schools. These schools teach children in grades one through eight. They may also provide kindergarten programs for children aged four and five.

Children aged fourteen and older attend secondary schools. Secondary schools teach children in grades nine through twelve. While the law only requires children to attend school until age sixteen, nearly all children stay in school until they finish Grade twelve, at age eighteen or nineteen.

Ken and Jin Yan's son is twelve, so he was sent to an elementary school. "We arrived around 9:30 on the day school started," Ken says. They had the documents they were supposed to have, to prove that their son was allowed to go to school and that they lived in their neighbourhood.

At first, though, there was a problem. "A lady told us the class was full," says Ken. "She told us to find a place in another school. But we like this school. I told them, 'The [school] board told us to register at your school.'"

The problem was solved when the principal came out of his office. "He discussed this with the lady," Ken says, "and in the end they decided to change their decision. The principal was very nice."

There are ten different school boards responsible for schools in the Greater Toronto Area. The biggest is the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), which manages all public schools in the City of Toronto.

Mahabub and his family live in Toronto, so their children attend schools run by the TDSB. At the end of August the year their son was six, Mahbub and his wife took him to their neighbourhood school to register for the school year.

Registering Your Child in a Toronto School

Your child can attend a Toronto District School Board school if you can prove that he or she is of the right age for the school and lives in the school's attendance area. You prove that your child is eligible by showing the school your proof of residency or citizenship papers.

If your child is a Canadian citizen, a permanent resident or a refugee claimant, you can register the child directly at the school. If your child does not have one of these documents you can still register the child for school.

To register for high school, all students between the ages of 14-20 should begin by visiting a Newcomer Reception Centre. You must make an appointment by telephone.

There are three centres:

West End Reception Centre
777 Bloor Street West 4th Floor
416-393-0542
(located near the Christie subway station)

If you live east of Yonge Street in Toronto:

Greenwood Reception Centre
24 Mountjoy Avenue
416-393-0750
(located near the Greenwood subway station)

Georges Vanier Reception Centre
3000 Don Mills Road East
Toronto, ON
416-395-9440
(Don Mills Road East, south of Finch)

Please bring immigration papers, two pieces of proof of address (rental agreement, bank statement, phone bill, driver's license, or government document with your address), and School documents and immunization records (if you have them).

At the TDSB site, brochures about first time high school registration are available in 14 languages.

Everyone in Toronto lives near a school and most children attend their neighbourhood school. It's not a rule, though. "If you don't like your local school for some reason," says a spokesman for the TDSB, "you can apply under what's called 'optional attendance' to send your child to a school you choose. Just because you apply doesn't mean you'll get in." If the school is full of children from its neighbourhood, the principal may not be able to find a place for your child. Your best bet," says the spokesman, "is to register your child in your neighbourhood school and then, in spring, see about applying for optional attendance for the following year."

Rules for registering your children at school are generally the same in all of the Toronto-area school boards. You have to prove who you are and where you live. Previous school records are also important for secondary students so that the school board can see what they have been studying. This helps place your child in the most useful courses.

This is the same process everyone goes through when registering children for school. Because Toronto has such a large number of newcomers, and from such a wide variety of places, the Toronto District School Board has a lot of experience in making new Canadian children welcome. "Nearly 20,000 newcomer children have registered in Toronto public schools in the last two years," the spokesman says. There are 300,000 children in these schools, so the new Canadians amount to about seven percent of all students.

The Hossains and Yans are both very pleased at how quickly their children have learned English in Toronto schools. "All of our children are very comfortable in English now," Mahubub says. Not all children learn English this quickly, but Toronto-area schools offer special teaching to help newcomer children learn English.

"We offer ESL programs to students who need support," the TDSB spokesman says. "The way it's done varies. Sometimes it's done through assistance provided in regular classrooms. Or [your child] could be withdrawn from class for special instruction."

In all cases, Toronto schools want your children to be comfortable in English as quickly as possible. "We support all of our students," the spokesman says. "Experts in education say it can take five to seven years for a young person to become fluent in English. But I find that children can converse well in English in just two to three years."

Some parents are concerned that their children will learn anti-social behaviour at school. "Sometimes I see them not behaving properly," Mahabub says of his children. "Sometimes they use bad language." He thinks they are learning this language in the playground at school. Mahabub goes on to say, though, that when he and his wife told his son's teacher that they were worried about the bad language he was learning, the teacher understood. "They have good teachers in this school," Mahabub says.

Other parents are concerned about bullying and racism. "I worry about this," Ken Yan says. "I want my son to become a gentleman!" He laughs as he says this.

The Toronto District School Board has a very strong anti-racism policy in its school to prevent things like taunting on playgrounds, but children from all backgrounds can sometimes be cruel. Still, schools expect everyone involved, from teachers to staff to students, to follow the anti-racism policy. The goal is to make school an exciting and useful part of your child's life.

And it seems to work. Both the Hossains and the Yans say that their children mix with children from all over the world in their new schools. "They all get along," Mahabub says.

"My son's class has Iranians, Russians and Chinese in it," Ken Yan says. "It's diversity. That's good."

Michael Skeet is a former broadcaster with CBC Radio and writer of many stories that have appeared in Canada and the US.

CNM