Pedro, a 10th grader whose family emigrated from Colombia a few years ago, was labeled a slow learner because he didn’t speak English. Rita, a high school student, said that when she arrived from Mexico, she was shunned and berated by her peers for not knowing English.
Both are students in the Toronto school district, which, with over 250,000 students and 600 schools, is both the largest in Canada and the one with the most Latin American students. And both were part of a study released last month which examined Toronto’s high Latino drop-out rate: About 40 percent of these students—nearly double the number of the overall population—fail to finish high school.
Compared to generations of Latin American migration to the U.S., large numbers of Hispanics started settling in Canada relatively recently. The first wave came in the 1970s, as political asylum seekers fled South American dictatorships. The largest wave, however, came after 2000, when the immigration debate in the U.S. became most heated.
About 350,000 Latin Americans are now in Canada, where the overall population is about 32 million. The largest concentration – a little more than a third – have settled in Toronto. But some say that the Canadian school system was not prepared for a sudden influx of Spanish speakers – which now total about 5,200 – and the young Latinos who migrated there have paid the consequences.
Rubén A. Gaztambide-Fernández, an education professor who headed up the University of Toronto’s years-long study, said many students told researchers scarce resources for Spanish speakers and economic stress impacted their performance.
They also said teachers and their peers had such negative stereotypes about them, that it bred low expectations.
“In the U.S., depending on where you live, all the stereotypes about Latinos tend to be bad, but at least there are a lot of stereotypes,” said Gaztambide-Fernández, whose final report, released this month, was 103 pages long. “What we found in Canada was that everyone assumes that because you are Latin American, you are Mexican. And because you are Mexican, you are poor, lazy and you belong to a gang. That was it.”
Gaztambide-Fernández believes the narrow view may be due to Latinos’ relatively recent arrival. “The only images many Canadians consume of Latin Americans are those that come from Hollywood movies,” he said.
A Puerto Rican Harvard University graduate, Gaztambide-Fernández moved to Toronto from Boston in 2006, around the time the Toronto school district began collecting demographic information about its students.
It was the first time the city was able to look into student success based on race and ethnicity, which turned out to be a long and arduous task. But when the results came in, the school district realized Latin Americans were dropping out at double of rate of the rest of the student population. No one knew why, so a group of Hispanic Torontonians decided to find out.
Sixty students from six Toronto high schools filled out surveys and were interviewed in focus groups or alone. Over and over again, Gaztambide-Fernández said, the students complained about not having enough Spanish-speaking support or ESL classes. Many reported they had to work to help their families, and said juggling those hours with school was affecting their class work. They also said the negative stereotypes sapped them of academic motivation.
“It is like a little burlap sack, you throw in discrimination, you throw in work, you throw in that you have no money, you throw in that, well, you don’t like school, you throw in this and you throw in that, and the burlap sack gets heavy,” said Mercedes, a 12th grader who was interviewed for the study, which published only first names. “It is not just one factor that leads you leave school.”
The 250,000-student Toronto school district, the largest in Canada, acknowledges that Latino students have struggled there. Members of the school board say they have tried to address the group’s problems in the past but nothing has worked. But now, following the University of Toronto study, the school board plans to launch a more far-reaching program.
The school board will adopt a series of recommendations in the study and has already reached out to the community, universities – and even school officials in New York – to address the issue.
“It is very clear to us that in order to help specific students improve their achievement we have to have innovative approaches,” said Jim Spyropoulos, Coordinating Superintendent for Inclusive Schools at the Toronto District School Board. “If we keep doing the same things, we are going to keep getting the same results.”
As part of its efforts, the district will kick off a pilot program in February that will offer cultural sensitivity classes to teachers so they could understand the Latin American culture, offer support programs for newcomers, and give low-income students part-time jobs at the school. Latin American history courses will also be part of the curriculum.
If the pilot program is successful, it will expand to all schools.
“What our kids keep telling us is, 'they don’t get us',” said Spyropoulos of the school board. “This is our best attempt to try and support them.”
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