Kids: Helping Your Kids at School NOW

by Claudio Muñoz

After only six months in Canada, Jeff Lee, an immigrant student at Dr. Norman Bethune CI, applied to become a peer leader for the NOW program. “He was a newcomer himself and that was one of the motivations for hiring him,” Fiona Yang, a settlement worker at the school, remembers. “He was really shy.”

Jeff has blonde hair, maybe a little bit red. He seems comfortable and eager to talk. At the time of the interview he is dressed in black. Today is Halloween at school and he wears a vampire costume.

CNMAGThe only difference between him and any other kids at school seems to be his accent. During our talk, “shy” is not a word that pops into my head to describe him.

Newcomer Orientation Week (NOW)is a new program that prepares immigrant students for their first days at school. In four days of intensive orientation, they learn how to find classrooms, the gym and the cafeteria. They also experience school routines like bells, morning announcements, lunch time, and locker usage. They get a glimpse of the Ontario school system (the credit system and the importance of extracurricular activities). Most importantly, they make a lot of good friends – the best support you can get to start school in a complete unknown, scary and sometimes overwhelming environment.

The NOW program is a new initiative that provides teams of settlement workers, teachers and more important, peer leaders. Peer leaders are “former” newcomer students with more experience – like Jeff – who volunteer to provide information and support for those who are newly arrived. The adults supervise and provide assistance and guidance.

“Everything was new when I started school as a newcomer,” Jeff says. “I had so much trouble the first time. I had problems with lockers, finding the classrooms and even communicating with others. The NOW program makes you feel comfortable about going to school.”

In 2008, NOW week reached 1,225 newcomer students with the assistance of 428 peer leaders throughout Ontario. Provincial schools boards, including locations in Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, Windsor, Waterloo, Peel and York Region, supported the program, providing space in the schools, recruiting teachers and promoting it to students and parents. The whole program is funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Finding the treasure

Christie Chang is one of this year’s participants. Her mom saw a NOW program banner hung in the front door of the school and encouraged her to join. “I was like... ‘Ok.’ And I came to the program and it was really fun. My mom was really happy.”

Jenani Jegasothy, a school settlement worker at Dr. Norman Bethune, remembers that at the beginning everybody was really quiet. “You could hear a pin drop,” she says. But then it all began....

“The program had a lot of fun games,” Christie says. “You had to search the school, like in treasure hunting, walking around and finding everything. [After that] I knew what a wing was, where the classrooms were.”

Activities started at eight and ended up at five. Newcomer kids filled out a questionnaire that went right to the classrooms walls (as a written introduction to the others), played with a “help wheel” (a very useful tool to find out who can help you with different issues – what a settlement worker does for example),and participated in quizzes, among many other activities. The first day, everybody rushed home at the end, but from day two onward, settlement workers and teachers almost needed to carry the children out.

Nobody wanted to leave.

It’s not easy being a (foreign) teenager

CNMAGBefore attending NOW week, Christie was concerned about her level of English (she’s from Hong Kong). She went to a school in Markham before and it wasn’t a good experience. “It was really hard because I couldn’t speak any English, so when somebody asked me something all I could say was yes, yes, yes, no, no, no. I was scared.”

Homa Forouzan, a school settlement worker at Pleasant View Junior High School explains that lack of communication skills, and adapting to a new environment and a new culture with gaps in their education are the biggest problems for immigrant kids.

Sue Kim, also a settlement worker at the same school, explains, “Another problem is different expectations – they don’t know what to expect from school, or society. Most of all, they don’t have any friends to be with. Even if the system is different, they had friends they can go and ask.”

That’s precisely the program’s main goal and a peer leader’s first role. Peer leaders during the NOW week, lead the program. They role play, they talk about the problems they faced and what they did to solve them.

But, most important, from day one, making and being friends is their most important task.

Christie explains that the kids she met during the orientation week are now her friends. “We have lunch together, we have fun together [...] we all get together and hang out for Christmas and Halloween or other festivities. We have a kind of a party and it’s really fun.”

“I made a lot of friends,” Jeff adds. “We actually go out for movies, shopping or karaoke. We joined Saturday school together. We even have a facebook group.”

NOW everybody wins

NOW creates a network of friends for new students, that’s for sure. But it has some academic benefits also. Christie says that when a foreign student can’t understand a math exercise, for example, another student can explain it in their mother tongue.

“The program was designed to provide information and friendship, for sure,” Jane Wei, a settlement worker at Dr. Norman Bethune explains. “But we also have a guidance councillor coming in to talk about the school system, the credits you need for graduation. Peer leaders teach newcomers how to read their time table, how to use the agenda, what materials they need for classes.”

It might sound pretty basic but if nobody tells you, there’s no way you can find out by yourself. Newcomer kids participating in the NOW week started school in a friendly environment with everybody paying attention to their problems or questions. They didn’t have to attend classes right away, clueless, or sit alone in the cafeteria as they had to do in previous years.

For everybody involved, the program is a complete success. Immigrant students are pretty much settled, they have friends and all the information they need (or at least they know where to find it.) The main problems are now only academics.

For peer leaders it’s also a great experience. They have more friends now, but they are also more confident. “I realized that I can be a leader too,” Jeff explains. “At first, I didn’t have any confidence in leading anything, but after training it’s different. I was surprised. What I feel about the NOW program is that I learned a lot, like how to approach other students in school. I also learned cooperation and group presentations and communications skills.”

The NOW week lasts only four days before school starts, but peer leaders and participants keep the spirit going for the rest of the year. “We want more people, more newcomers,” Jeff says. “Maybe expand the whole group and have more time together, so we can have more fun. Maybe we can go camping or something.”

That’s more than an adaptation program for kids. It’s just plain friendship.

How To Join The Program

If your kids are starting school next year, please be aware that the program is not available at every school. It depends on the number of immigrant students enrolled. Ask if the program is available at your school while registering.

If your kids are starting school late, once the week has ended, they can still benefit from the program. Most peer leaders are also members of the ESL Mentor program. It’s a one-on-one project, in which the mentor meets with the mentee during lunch time for school work, or they get together on Saturdays mornings for English as a Second Language tutoring.

Any new student can join the mentor program. Then, they would enter the same network of friends and support (they would only miss all the fun of the NOW week.)