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Willowdale runs international program to meet need in community

Written on May 7th, 2008

Large percentage of student population is Asian

Willowdale Christian School in North York is running a sizeable international program in response to requests from families from Asia, primarily Korea.

About 35 per cent of the school’s population is Asian. About eight per cent are students who do not speak English and are enrolled in the school’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program. The school has hired a teacher to direct the ESL instruction.

The school board and education committee have capped the number of students who do not speak English at eight per cent in order to ensure the school is effectively educating all students.

Principal Mary Jansen points out that students for whom English is a second language require more attention in the classroom.

She adds that the cap does not limit the international diversity of the school.

The international program has been up and running for about seven years. In the last two or three years the number of students in the ESL program has grown to capacity, according Jansen.

Willowdale is located in a neighbourhood in Toronto which is very diverse and includes a large population of Korean families.

Several years ago the school received several requests to take international students but initially decided not to implement an international program.

“Then it just became something that we really felt we should do because there was a real need for it,” says Jansen.

Most of the international students are in Grades 5 to 8. Many come to stay with guardians for the time they attend the school. They stay an average of six months to two years.

Willowdale requires all students to be Christians. Each must include a reference letter from a pastor when he or she applies.

Jansen says the international program makes for a very diverse school community and provides great opportunities to practice the Christian faith.

“It makes us more accountable for being a Christian school,” she says. “We have to accept differences, big differences; I mean, we don’t understand each other at the beginning of the year.”

The school has faced several unforeseen challenges with the implementation of the program but works on an ongoing basis to address them.

One of the challenges is having as many as four students who don’t speak English in each classroom. This requires additional attention on the part of the teachers who work with the ESL instructor to plan studies for the students.

In some cases, the international students work on their own English studies rather than participating in certain class curricula. Jansen points out that this arrangement is appropriate because the students are attending the school primarily to learn English.

Another reality, if not challenge, is that the Korean students experience homesickness, says Jansen.

“It’s difficult. These are elementary school students. They’re not little adults. So they have emotions that sometimes get the better of them.”

At the start of the program Willowdale only accepted students living with their parents but later agreed to take those who stay with guardians. Jansen says that in the Asian culture it is quite common for children to be raised by extended family so having them stay for a year or two away from their parents is quite acceptable.

The school has responded to the homesickness issue by partnering the students with other children or another adult. Jansen herself often takes on the role of counselor and comforter.

Other than these issues, the international program has been a great benefit for both the students from Korea and the school.

“I think the most amazing thing we see is students who come here without a word of English who are speaking the language by the end of one year,” says Jansen. “It’s really quite incredible how quickly they learn.”

The program also provides a financial boost for the school, which charges a separate tuition rate to compensate for additional services it provides.

“I think (the international program) is a rare and wonderful opportunity to be hospitable to another culture, to be welcoming and show God’s love to people who really need it, especially when they’re lonely,” says Jansen.

Since the turn of the century, Korea, particularly South Korea, has been sending increasing numbers of students to developed countries to pursue studies. According to recent statistics, the number of Korean primary and secondary school students studying in the United States has reached 100,000. Depending on their economic capacity families are also sending their children to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Philippines, India and Fiji are the third, fourth and fifth choices.

According to an online report by The Real South Korea, education is considered one of the most powerful means of social and economic mobility for South Koreans. “Hence, there is fierce competition for higher levels of schooling and especially for admission into colleges,” the report states.

The recent boom in studying abroad is also fueled by the greatly expanded demand for English language training in South Korea, and by the recent government push for globalization, according to the report.