Foreign Families Bring Special Needs Students To B.C. Schools

Foreign families bring special needs students to B.C. schools
Desperate parents fail to warn educators of child'sproblems

By Janet Steffenhagen
Vancouver Sun
April 19, 2010

A growing number of foreign families are bringing special-needs children to Metro Vancouver so they can attend regular classrooms with other same-age students rather than being segregated or denied education altogether in their homelands, according to longtime educators with ESL expertise.

And while they say such choices are testimony to the value of B.C.'s inclusive education, they acknowledge it places additional pressures on school districts, especially when the children do not speak English and, in some cases, parents refuse to reveal their special learning needs.

Sylvia Helmer, an ESL expert who was recently manager of the Vancouver school district's reception centre for newcomers, said she knows of two dozen such families who arrived within an eight-month period, and said discussions with colleagues suggest all Metro districts have noticed the trend.

“While I see the need to not be the welcome centre for the world — we cannot afford that — I also see the desperation of families to find any support for their special children,” said Helmer, who is now an adjunct professor with the University of B. C.' s language and literacy department. “Parents see our system as enlightened compared to theirs.”

Although the numbers are relatively small, given that Vancouver receives about 4,000 new immigrant children each year, their needs are complex.

Some families arrive with psycho-educational assessments that identify the child's special needs, which allows educators to begin assistance immediately. But others won't acknowledge a problem.

“Often there is this wish … that if we start over again in a new place it will all go away,” Helmer said. “There's a level of denial sometimes.”

Once the children are placed in classrooms, their learning struggles may become obvious, but their teachers probably won't know the cause, especially if the students don't speak English. Is it culture shock or resistance to change? Or is it autism, a learning disability such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)?

Some parents remain silent for fear their family will not be allowed to stay in Canada due to costs associated with their child's condition.

Few classroom teachers have training in special education or ESL, even though they regularly encounter both, Helmer noted. But even the specialists have trouble identifying the issue because of the language barrier, she said, adding that Coquitlam is one of the few districts with a school psychologist — Dr. Ying Hoh– able to conduct assessments in different languages (English, Cantonese and Mandarin).

But the children presenting learning difficulties come from many different parts of the world and speak dozens of different languages.

“You can't get the designated help and the money for extra staffing if there's no formal designation, and you can't get a formal designation, if you can't do the assessment,” Helmer said. “What happens, unfortunately for these kids, [is that] teachers do what they can and formal assessment is delayed until their English is better. In the meantime, they're shuffled along in the system.”

Helmer said she's heard painful stories from parents, including those who say “we came here … because back home the only school [our son] would be allowed to go to is one of those schools that has bars on the windows.”

Linda McPhail, chair of the Richmond board of education, recalled emotional comments at a recent public meeting from a man who had immigrated from the Middle East and was — for the first time — able to put his three children in school, including the youngest one with special needs. “His youngest child had never been in school because where he lived, the child wasn't allowed to go to school. … You can imagine the trauma for this family and the joy they felt in coming here and being in a community where they felt supported.”

Coquitlam's Ying Hoh said B.C. should be proud of its compassion and generosity. “I see this trend as speaking well for what our teachers do,” she said, adding she would hate to see any effort to curtail such choices.