Tuka (left) and Belal Alhamwi, with their son attending English classes at Forsyth Education Centre in Dartmouth. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Nearly 200 adult immigrant students are taking a democratic action that many people born in this country never have. They’ve have signed petitions addressed to local Liberal Members of Parliament, Nova Scotia Immigration Minister Lena Diab, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau begging for their help in keeping an English language program going in its present form and location at the Forsyth Education Centre in north end Dartmouth.

The petition reads:

We are not happy that our school is closing March 31. We don’t want that to happen. We want our school to stay open. Our school is like a family to us. Please change your decision.

The Halifax Regional School Board has operated the English as an Additional Language (EAL) program for nearly three decades. Last week, the board told staff and students it was not renewing its funding agreement with Ottawa’s Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) as of April 1, and gave 42 English teachers and Early Childhood workers at the Forsyth Centre and the former Bedford Central school layoff notices.

The employees work on behalf of 350 adult immigrant students attending classes in the two locations. The Immigrant Settlement Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS) says it will take over the language training, but will not commit to keeping schools in Bedford and Dartmouth open or to rehiring all the staff.

Belal Alhamwi is an accountant by training, a Syrian refugee who lives in Dartmouth and who has found part-time work there. After a year attending English classes for three hours a day, he speaks English well, and credits his success to good teachers. He worries that his new instructors may not be as competent as those he’s had and that a daily trip across the bridge to a larger school somewhere in Halifax will change the learning environment he’s thrived in at the smaller Forsyth school.

In response to questions from the Halifax Examiner yesterday, ISANS executive-director Gerry Mills said, “We are confident at ISANS that on April 1, all those people from the Halifax Regional School Board who want to continue with language training will be accommodated. Our goal is to ensure no disruption in language training and child care for those currently in the program. We first need to meet with the instructors and then the clients before making final decisions on where that happens.”

Those meetings and decisions are supposed to happen in the next 10 days, although the main option ISANS is considering is moving all English language training to its location on Mumford Road in Halifax. The non-profit settlement organization currently serves more than 400 adult students, including those in the Workplace English program.

Halifax Regional School Board spokesperson Doug Hadley refused to comment on whether the Board would lease space to ISANS if it chose to continue providing English lessons in Dartmouth and Bedford. “ISANS hasn’t asked us that, and our first priority would be to look at what our own internal needs are to use those spaces,” said Hadley.

Although both ISANS and the School Board insist they are working closely together, that sounds a lot like a “No.”

The second floor of the Forsyth Education Centre helps adults with literacy issues and offers a high school equivalent program to people who have been out of school for awhile. A daycare operates on the first floor next to classrooms for the EAL program.

Margaret Ryan, a veteran EAL teacher, says unspecified changes to a successful program and uncertainty as to how it will be delivered two months from now is “particularly difficult for refugees and newcomers who value continuity more than anything. Students were crying last week when they learned the school may close. It’s the one constant in their lives, and it doesn’t make sense to kick it over like an ant hill, because it will take much longer to put all the pieces back together again.”

One of those pieces Ryan has managed for the School Board is a program that sends 10 teachers into Halifax area homes. They provide English lessons to 75 students — mostly immigrant women who have too many small children to go out to school, or to adults with serious heath issues, including PTSD. ISANS executive director Gerry Mills says the agency will continue to provide that service after it figures out how many additional teachers it needs to hire.

The agency learned less than three weeks ago that the School Board was not re-applying to continue the EAL program.

Community groups which organized over the past 18 months to raise money to sponsor, support, and help settle Syrian refugee families openly question whether ISANS may end up with too much on its plate.

Dartmouth resident and former Member of Parliament Wendy Lill has written to the current MP for Dartmouth-Cole Harbour, Darren Fisher, on behalf of the sponsorship group Cole Harbour Cares. Her group is asking the federal government to maintain the status quo at the Forsyth School until ISANS has the people and plan in place to help hundreds of students and teachers the School Board is dropping.

“Our experience with ISANS,” writes Lill, “is they are chronically overwhelmed by demands placed on them. We have no idea where or when our families will be able to actually return to language training. And that is extremely worrying.  Getting employment is directly connected to language facility. Self-esteem, mental health, family stability are all tied to the ability to function within the language and culture in which you live.”

MP Fisher wrote to Lill indicating he shares those concerns, saying he had made inquiries to the federal Department of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada to find out why the School Board had not applied for funding to continue the program. Here’s the information Fisher said he received from IRCC:

While there are many reasons why an agreement might come to an end, including decisions by the Service Providing Organizations (SPOS) themselves, we can confirm that it was not a unilateral decision by IRCC not to fund the organization delivering the service. The Department is continuing to work with other SPOs to ensure that the needs of our clients are satisfactorily addressed. [emphasis added]

If that sounds like classic buck passing, it’s because it is.  According to Doug Hadley, the school board spokesperson, the Immigration Department told the school board in December it planned to unveil a new funding model for English language instruction to be delivered by multi-service agencies (such as ISANS) by February 15, 2017.

Hadley says “the challenge for the Board was that we have to give our EAL English teachers who are on contract eight weeks notice if we are going to lay them off. We couldn’t wait to do that because we expect Ottawa will announce the new model after telling us they’re confident ISANS can deliver it.”

The EAL teachers aren’t members of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union and will not receive severance.

For its part, ISANS is promising to hire additional teachers to expand its services by April 1but Mills says it is too early to know how many it will need. Laid-off teachers worry they will end up competing against each other and some say the situation sends a bad and bewildering  message to newcomer students taught language is key to getting a job only to watch teachers who are losing theirs.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. In theory it sounds like ISANS should be providing the service, but I don’t think ISANS is really organized enough to make a smooth transition from the school board. The students, mainly refugees still getting settled, are caught in the middle and this transition in the middle of a ‘school year’ is not a good idea.

  2. We have elected school boards. An unanswered question is whether the board gave staff any direction on this?

  3. ESL training for immigrants outside Halifax (really people, there are places not in HRM) will also be ending as it was organized through the Halifax School Board and those in most places not in HRM (really, there are people in such places) have few, if any, options.

  4. One day a week I pick up a young couple who attend EAL at Forsyth in Dartmouth and drive them home so that they get there in time when their daughters arrive home on the school bus. There is a 30 minute window to do so. There are probably many more practical reasons like this to keep training and services as decentralized as possible.
    I also notice a lot of friendly interaction amongst the people who attend and I venture to guess this helps build a sense of community amongst the refugees.

  5. yeah, the Feds gotta support this. Justin to the Rescue, take a selfie in a speedo! How could we ever get Northern Greenhouse farm running? To help with the food crisis? I think we must move North and work on that. I don’t know, this crazy world has got me thinkin crazy solutions, and aint that at the heart of the buzzy word Innovation? Go ahead, think of crazy solutions and put them out there.