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Vijitha Sureshvaran, an accountant originally from Sri Lanka who is doing a co-op placement with Porter Airlines as part of the CanEX program at the City Adult Learning Centre in Toronto. (Photo by Anne-Marie Jackson/ The Globe and Mail) (Anne-Marie Jackson/Anne-Marie Jackson for The Globe and Mail)
Vijitha Sureshvaran, an accountant originally from Sri Lanka who is doing a co-op placement with Porter Airlines as part of the CanEX program at the City Adult Learning Centre in Toronto. (Photo by Anne-Marie Jackson/ The Globe and Mail) (Anne-Marie Jackson/Anne-Marie Jackson for The Globe and Mail)

For immigrants, school opens Canada's doors Add to ...

Every Monday morning for the past 18 weeks, a group of engineers, computer scientists, accountants and a nanophysicist have gathered in a classroom in the city's east end. Although the conversation has occasionally turned to solar power and international trade, they are not in an academic conference. It's a high school class - part of the City Adult Learning Centre's CanEx co-op program that helps new immigrants gain workplace experience.

"This program is important, it helped me," said Mirjana Devic-Antic, an architect from Serbia who struggled to find work before attending CanEx.

Now the 51-year-old mother works as a facilities designer for the Ministry of Government Services.

Though sparsely funded and rarely discussed, adult high schools provide a lifeline to more than dropouts. People looking to change careers can update courses and the city's immigrant population relies on them for ESL courses and workplace experience.

A more narrow definition of education saw Ontario kick adults off the list of worthy causes in the late 1990s. Students over 20 receive about one-third the funding of their younger classmates, and the school boards that still offer adult programs run them on a shoestring.

"In some ways, I don't like what that says about value," said Michael Rethazi, principal of CALC. "It's not good because adult learners have just as much to contribute. They make huge sacrifices, many of them, to return to school."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Education, Gary Wheeler, said the difference in funding exists "because adult learners require less in-school administration and fewer classroom consultants and professional and paraprofessional supports, such as special education services and support for at-risk students."

Mr. Wheeler said that because adult classrooms aren't governed by the class-size requirements of regular classrooms, "boards have the flexibility to manage their adult education costs by adjusting their class sizes."

This results in adult classrooms being regularly crammed with close to 50 students, and insiders say the supports the ministry has deemed unnecessary are badly needed.

"We could keep a full-time psychiatrist or psychologist in business," said CALC's vice-principal, Andrew Cruikshank. The most common reason that students in the adult program leave CALC, he said, is mental health complications. A few weeks ago, during a lockdown drill, an adult student who had recently stopped taking his medication for a mental health disorder had a breakdown that left him physically clinging to a teacher.

Even basic physical health is a concern. Earlier this spring, when a visiting hygienist performed a dental screening of 293 students in CALC's Ed-Vance program for 18- to 20-year-olds, 10 had serious dental emergencies and 230 had serious decay that required professional attention.

Since its inception at CALC nearly a decade ago, the CanEx co-op program has been run by a small and outspoken woman named Franki Gestel. Like all teachers in adult learning, Ms. Gestel is on contract and paid by the hour. However, she spends much of her own time trolling the Internet and calling friends to find placements for her students.

The program represents a sound investment. About 45 per cent of Canada's newcomers come to Toronto and economists estimate the region is losing as much as $2.25-billion annually because people are unable to get jobs in keeping with their training and qualifications - or when they find these jobs, they aren't getting paid as much as they could be.

"What could be better for an employer? You bring somebody in, you get to see how they work and you don't pay them," said Ms. Gestel. "Most are very qualified."

"Franki's our hero," said Vijitha Sureshvaran, a 36-year-old accountant from Sri Lanka.

Beyond adding some Canadian experience to her resumé, Ms. Sureshvaran learned some important lessons about the cultural differences of the workplace. She has accepted that she doesn't have to stand up whenever her supervisor enters the room, but couldn't believe it when he offered to take the entire office to lunch as a reward for their hard work.

CALC's graduation ceremony is known for being one of the most well-attended, heartfelt events at the Toronto District School Board.

"Many of them didn't think they'd ever get to this point and many of them are carrying a great deal of baggage that has precluded them from finishing and from attaining their goals," said Mr. Rethazi. "So it's a big deal for them."

None of Ms. Gestel's students will be present next week when about 600 CALC students collect their diplomas. Their successes won't be marked by a ceremony, but for people like Ms. Sureshvaran, who was placed through CanEx at Porter Airlines, they're no less important.

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