Bilingual education for Hispanic children in Toronto

Martin Boyd

Canada is often applauded as the first country in the world to adopt “multiculturalism” as a political imperative. As early as the 1970s, the concept of a multicultural nation was central to Pierre Trudeau’s vision of the “Just Society”. Yet most of the Trudeau government’s concrete achievements to foster multiculturalism stopped short at protecting the rights of Canada’s French-speaking minority, and, thirty years later, Canada still seems to be struggling to expand its national identity beyond the narrow scope of English-French bilingualism to become truly multicultural. The most obvious example of Canada’s myopic vision of multiculturalism lies in the Canadian tendency to assume “bilingual education” means instruction in English and French, as if these were the only two languages that exist in the country. Indeed, while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes two clauses under the misleading heading “Minority Language Educational Rights”, the clauses themselves speak only of the rights to receive an education in Canada’s two official languages, with no rights accorded to the millions of speakers of Cantonese, Mandarin, Italian, Polish, Korean, Ukrainian, Hindi, Portuguese or Spanish who have made Canada their home – or, for that matter, speakers of Canada’s many indigenous languages.

The result of this lack of official support for minority languages in Canada has meant that the communities that speak them must fill the void and establish their own initiatives and institutions to provide education in their languages. The responsibility for such initiatives generally falls on a handful of motivated, passionate individuals who recognize the value of preserving their community’s language and culture, and are willing to dedicate themselves to the huge task of establishing an educational institution. One such individual is Susana Jiménez, founder of the Hispano Canadian Intercultural School (HCIS), the first elementary school in Toronto to offer bilingual instruction in English and Spanish. “It is very important for us to conserve our roots, and an essential part of this is language,” she explains when asked her reasons for founding the school. “We need to foster pride in being able to speak Spanish and speak it well, and in belonging to one of the many wonderful cultures of the Spanish-speaking world.”

HCIS was founded in May of last year, and now has approximately 20 students. The school aims to provide elementary education (from Grades 1 through to 8) to students in English and Spanish, providing a unique combination of programs to help students develop their skills in both languages. The school’s program is designed to include both native Spanish speakers and non-Spanish speakers, and also offers Spanish classes to children and adults from outside the Hispanic community who have an interest in learning Spanish.

Susana has over twenty years of experience in education, having worked as a teacher in some of Mexico City’s most prestigious schools, such as Colegio Simón Bolívar (a “La Salle” school) and Instituto Cultural. At the Alexander von Humboldt German School, she designed the Spanish as a Second Language program for the school’s German students. On arriving in Canada, Canadian employers refused to recognize her extensive experience and qualifications due to her lack of “Canadian experience” – a refrain that is sadly familiar to many professionals who immigrate to Canada to find that their adopted country, in spite of the lip service its government pays to the importance of immigration, suffers from a severe form of parochialism when it comes to integrating foreign professionals into its workforce.

The idea of founding a school tailored to the needs of Hispanic Canadians arose from Susana’s experiences with the education system in Toronto – in particular, the difficulties that her own children faced in the schools they attended here. It was evident that many teachers were simply not adequately prepared to address the specific needs of students whose first language is not English.

This fact is not surprising if you consider that the Ontario College of Teachers – unlike many equivalent authorities in other parts of the English-speaking world – does not even recognize English as a Second Language as a separate discipline from English for native speakers. That the regulatory body of public teachers in Canada’s most multicultural province makes no distinction between teaching English to native speakers and teaching English to non-native speakers points to a disturbing lack of understanding of the specific needs of ESL learners. And the general absence of community languages other than English and French in the curriculum of Ontario’s public schools has led many immigrant communities to establish their own private institutions to provide their children with a truly comprehensive education that includes instruction in both English and their native language.

When Susana decided to establish just such an institution for Toronto’s Spanish-speaking community, she initiated an exhaustive research project to determine the best way to make it happen. The school’s location – at 483 Lawrence Street West, near the intersections of Lawrence and Bathurst – was chosen due to its central location between various neighbourhoods with large proportions of Hispanic residents. The school’s student-centred philosophy – providing individualized attention in an atmosphere where students are encouraged to “actively participate in their own learning” – addresses some of the main reasons parents in Ontario are increasingly turning to private schools to educate their children, according to the report “Ontario’s Private Schools: Who Chooses Them and Why”, issued by the Fraser Institute in 2007. This report also identifies the dedication of the teachers as one of the chief reasons parents choose a private school, and this is an issue that is of particular importance to Susana. “It is the human factor that will really make any [education] system an excellent tool or a disaster. A teacher can destroy a child or raise him to the point of making him a successful person for the rest of his life. Every child needs to receive individual attention… but unfortunately there are too many teachers who focus on giving classes in general, as attending to individual needs involves more work and they’re just not prepared to do it.”

There can be no doubt that Susana is prepared to do the work. Her tireless dedication to the project of establishing Toronto’s first bicultural English-Spanish elementary school has now made the school a reality, in spite of the complete absence of official support. Her efforts to obtain government support for this important initiative for Canada’s fastest growing linguistic community have been fruitless, as there is no government program in place to support bilingual schools in Canada – unless, of course, by bilingual you mean English and French. Support for the school comes from the Hispanic community itself, and although the response from the community has been extremely encouraging, there are still obstacles to be overcome. “The biggest challenge has been to demonstrate the real value of sending children to this particular school, instead of enrolling them in the public or Catholic system.” The school’s mission is to achieve all the same Ontario Ministry of Education objectives that apply to public and Catholic schools, but with the added benefit of providing students with the opportunity “to read, write and speak in Spanish, and to gain a deeper understanding of the various Hispanic cultures and their history.” And the small size of the school offers a welcoming environment in which children can receive the individual attention and support that is so often lacking in larger institutions.

Support for HCIS is growing, and not just within the Hispanic community. Non-Hispanic families have also expressed an interest in the school, in light of the growing importance of Spanish in international trade in the Americas, leading them to consider the possibility of a bilingual English-Spanish education for their children. The school represents an extremely important initiative for the Hispanic community in Toronto, and an important step towards the realization of Pierre Trudeau’s dream of a “Just Society” in Canada – that is, a society in which all Canadians are given the right to preserve and celebrate their language and culture.

For more information on the Hispano Canadian Intercultural School, visit www.hcischool.com or contact Susana Jiménez at (416) 256 9777 or [email protected]

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