As highlighted in the literature review, refugee children can spend long periods of time without receiving quality education before arriving to their host country (Holt & Laitsch, 2016; Dryden-Peterson, 2015). The lack of age-appropriate academic content can result in refugee students falling behind in content-mastery and having a harder time meeting the expectations set out in the regular curriculum of their host country (Dryden-Peterson, 2015; Ferfolja & Vickers, 2010). Moreover, low literacy levels combined with little or no knowledge of English, can severely hinder positive academic achievement. Research has pointed out that governments and schools should provide the necessary support to allow refugee children to be integrated within the regular curriculum; yet, they should make sure that the provision of language programs are not provided at the expense of other literacy programs (Brown et al., 2006; Crul et al., 2016; Dryden-Peterson, 2015; Ferfolja & Vickers, 2010; Holt & Laitsch, 2016; Taylor & Sidhu, 2012; Weekes et al., 2011).
The literature review highlighted the tendency by policy-makers and school authorities to categorize refugee students as having the same needs as other types of immigrant or ELL students. Research suggests that the provision of language programs has been regarded by policy-makers as the only mechanism required to integrate refugee children under school systems (Matthews, 2008; Sidhu & Taylor, 2007). Under MOE policies refugee students have been categorized together with English Language Learners and students with special needs; nevertheless, the ministry has established proper assessment tools which allow school authorities and teachers to gather data about the student that is crucial in order for the student to be placed in the right program (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013b). For instance, it is important to recognize the ministry’s positive take on the establishment of PLAR, which assesses student’s proficiency in an international language(s), acquired in both formal and informal ways (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2001, 2007b). Hence, it can be used to properly assesses refugee children, as it takes full consideration of their lack of English knowledge, as well as the fact that they might have gaps in their education due to war and conflict. Therefore, whether refugee children need help with improving their English skills or developing their literacy and mathematic skills, the MOE has established a set of policies that ensures that refugee students can receive the support that they need in order to overcome both language and literacy barriers simultaneously, while continuing to accumulate credit courses in order to graduate (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2016a).
On the other hand, it was mentioned that refugee students might be identified by the IPRC as having a behavioural exceptionality due to their inability to build or maintain interpersonal relationships, having excessive fears or anxieties, and presenting an inability to learn that cannot be traced to intellectual, sensory, or other health factors (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2017, p. A14). Yet, it is important to note that more guidance should be given to school boards, school authorities and teachers on how to address the education and integration of students who have been identified as having a behavioral exceptionality. The policy document on “Special Education (2017)” focuses on the policies and strategies guiding the provision of special education programs for exceptional children with disabilities, such as hearing problems, autism, speech-language disorders, vision problems, and a developmental delay. Nevertheless, the policy document completely dismisses the need to establish programs and services to target students who have been identified as having a behavioral exceptionality. It is important to understand that students who are categorized as having a behavioural exceptionality are likely to be very heterogenous – for instance, due to their unique challenges, refugee students are likely to require specific support structures that are different from those required by other students. Therefore, the ministry should recognize that the lack of information provided to school boards regarding the types of programs that would benefit students with a behavioural exceptionality, or ways in which teachers can approach the instruction of this group of students, can severely impact their educational outcomes. Consequently, more attention should be given to providing school boards with evidence-based recommendations on approaches that are likely to result in positive educational outcomes for this group of students.
Combining Special and Regular Classes
Another concern around refugee children’s education is regarding the degree to which refugees are included in the school’s regular curriculum due to their lack of literacy levels and knowledge of English. Depending on the education system, research shows that refugee students are often segregated from regular classes for long periods of time in order to be provided the support that they need (Crul et al., 2016; Mcbrien, 2005; Nonchev & Tagarov, 2012). Nevertheless, scholars have pointed out the importance of integrating refugee students in mainstream schooling in order to improve their level of engagement with native students, and society as a whole (Taylor & Sidhu, 2012; Weekes et al., 2011).
Unlike different approaches adopted by education systems around the world where refugee students are segregated completely from mainstream classes, under Ontario’s Special Education Policy, refugee children who have been identified as exceptional students can benefit from special education programs where they are given the support that they need – while still being incorporated into some regular classes. Only one out of the five types of placement options for special education provision (see Table 4.1) segregate an exceptional child from regular classes completely (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2017). Hence, it is important to recognize the ministry’s efforts of ensuring that exceptional students are incorporated into regular classes, even if it is at least one instructional period daily (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2017).
Unlike in the policy document on “Special Education (2017)” where there is explicit mention of the types of placement options for exceptional students, under the policy document “English Language Learners / ESL and ELD Programs and Services: Policies and Procedures for Ontario Elementary and Secondary Schools (2007)” there is no mention whether ESL/ELD programs for ELL students are to be provided as withdrawal assistance or as full-time program options. Therefore, in order to analyze the provisions set out under this policy document, an examination of Ontario’s ESL and ELD Curriculum was performed. The curriculum set out by the ministry for ELL students states that, “students, including beginning-level learners of English, should be placed in at least one mainstream class, to allow them to interact with their English-speaking peers” (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2007a, p. 25). Hence, this information further supports the ministry’s efforts to incorporate all students, regardless of their needs, to regular curriculums.
Nevertheless, following the concern regarding the isolation of students, another issue that arises from refugee children’s limited knowledge of English and low literacy levels is with respect to grade placement. In many instances refugee students are placed in lower grades – not because of their learning capabilities, but due to the lack of knowledge of the language of instruction (Dryden-Peterson, 2015). Although the ministry has made it clear that a student’s English language proficiency will not influence the student’s grade placement and that students with limited schooling should receive proper support in order to catch up with their same-age peers, there is no clear indication of how school authorities should decide what grade students with limited or no prior schooling should be placed in – especially those arriving to secondary schools with no knowledge of English. Recall, under Ontario’s language-acquisition policy, grade placement for ELL students attending secondary schools is determined on their prior education, background in specific subject areas and total credit equivalency – nevertheless, clear policy guidelines on how schools should assess secondary school aged students with very limited or no formal schooling should be provided. This is especially important for schools that have a low number of immigrant students – as they are likely to have no existing support programs in place. Moreover, the omission of such guidelines is likely to lead schools to adopt different approaches across the province – nevertheless, further research would need to be conducted to confirm this suggested weakness.
Case Study: TDSB
Following MOE’s mandate, TDSB has established different programs and courses targeted specifically to students who might have a refugee background. Under Policy 027, TDSB has established an Education Plan which aims to provide equal access to learning opportunities to all students in order to achieve their fullest potential (TDSB, 1999). Moreover, following the ministry’s mandates, TDSB has established In-School Support teams (IST) and School Support teams (SST), which help identify students who require special support, or students who should be referred to the IPRC and given an IEP (TDSB, 2014f).
On the other hand, TDSB has also implemented three different courses/programs to address the educational needs of secondary school-aged students who have been identified as exceptional students (TDSB, 2014g). First, the Secondary Resource Course is a non-credit course where the students receive highly individualized support based on their particular needs. The second alternative is the Secondary Learning Strategies Course, which is offered only for students with an IEP, where students also receive additional support but are not allowed to earn credits after completing the course. Finally, TDSB also offers the Focus on Success Program, which provides specialized support to students “who exhibit ongoing behavioral concerns that result in significant difficulties adjusting emotionally and/or academically in school” (TDSB, 2014g, para. 4).
Elementary school aged children receive similar support systems as secondary school aged children. The most prominent program within this age group is the Resource Program, which provides indirect support, resource assistance and withdrawal assistance to exceptional students. After an assessment, the In-school Support Team or School Support Team can decide which type of assistance is needed by the student (TDSB, 2014g).