By Rhia Perkins
Three out of four English as a Second Language high school students will drop out before graduation, says a study by University of Calgary professors Dr. David Watt and Dr. Hetty Roessingh. The study tracked the progress of more than 500 ESL students in a large Calgary high school. The findings indicated it was not just the dropout rate that was alarming.
"A lot of kids, who might have done well academically if we had held them in an ESL program a bit longer, ended up doing English 13, 23, 33 and not ever being able to sit the English 30 exam," said Roessingh.
English 30 is a requisite course for entry into university and most other post-secondary programs. Even those students who do end up in academic English courses have problems with its demands.
"English 30 is really the gatekeeper for them," said Roessingh. "We saw students who’d written that exam five times and never did pass it."
According to the study, government funding cuts have further complicated these problems a great deal, especially in terms of time limits on ESL support and the graduation age cap.
"In the years before the cuts the average age of graduation was nearly 21 years of age," said Roessingh. "But among those kids, we used to see kids who eventually ended up in pharmacy, medicine, quite a few engineers, MBAs and so on. We almost never see that anymore."
Recommendations that come from the study include ESL classroom support extended beyond the current 3-year limit, removal of high school age caps in these situations, and recognition that language learning at an academic level is different and that students often come from very different cultural backgrounds.
Funding for change to the system will need to come from the provincial government.
"They need to find a portion in the educational pie that will look after the entitlement of these children," said Roessingh. "Up until more recently, a lot of people in leadership positions would say that ESL was complementary, it was optional, and we’re arguing that it’s a core educational need."
Alberta Learning Spokesperson Ed Greenberg argues that both the department and minister are committed to improving high school completion for all types of students and that ESL funding is an important part of that.
"We provide approximately $9 millon for ESL students across the province," he said. "Since Dr. Oberg lifted the funding caps in the summer, that’s made up to $5 million available for ESL education for students."
According to Roessingh , Canada is an immigrant society and current studies indicate that one in five students do not speak English at home.
Some ESL students, however, feel that the problem does not lie so much in educational support, as it does in understanding what it is like to start again in a new culture.
"It has to do with the environment that you’re in, it’s completely new," said Mario Boido, who graduated from the U of C in 1998. "People are unwilling to become part of the system they are put in. Partly because is not necessarily accommodating."
He feels that teachers and staff should be better prepared to help these sorts of students.