Making friends won't be easy for Aayushmaan Rana on his first day of school. Barely four weeks after flying halfway around the world, from northern India to Toronto, he knows just three people in this new country – his mom, his dad, and his sister – and speaks little English.
He's keen to learn. Last Thursday, as a teacher at a Mississauga immigrant settlement centre explained the results of his math and English proficiency tests to his mother, 11-year-old Aayushmaan dragged a small, hot-chocolate-stained finger along the text of a picture book.
He ignored the illustrations of a toothy jungle cat and repeated the English words he could recognize, three and four times.
"Tiger... tiger... tie-gurr," he said.
"You don't have to memorize, just read," his father said.
Aayushmaan is one of nearly five million elementary and secondary students who will start school on Tuesday, one of 500,000 who are foreign-born, and one of thousands who will be in a Canadian classroom for the first time. It's a testament to the resiliency of children that, despite the challenges they face – cultural, linguistic and financial – immigrant students in this country outperform their native-born peers.
They post stronger scores on standardized math and science tests and are more likely to go on to postsecondary education. The same does not hold true for immigrants to other countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
That's often why highly educated families like Aayushmaan's – his parents are university professors – choose Canada. Many arrive having studied the Fraser Institute's rankings of Canadian schools, and enrolling their children is the priority, before finding a job, a car, or even health care.
"Education is the most important thing for most of these parents, it's why they come here," said Sharaline Joseph, the settlement worker who helped the Ranas at one of three We Welcome The World Centres within the Peel District School Board.
According to Statistics Canada, about 10 per cent of Canadian students were born elsewhere. In major metropolitan areas such as Vancouver and Toronto, that proportion climbs as to high at 25 per cent, including postsecondary.
In these immigration hot spots, schools often have settlement workers, and some school districts, including Toronto, Peel, Calgary and Vancouver, have welcoming centres that are sometimes the first point of contact for families newly arrived in Canada.
Teachers perform academic assessments of children going into the school system, introduce parents to the concept of snow days, show them how to register their youngsters for school, arrange transportation and find co-op and job training programs.
Over the past five years, urban school boards have seen increased need and have begun expanding these programs, which are generally funded with a combination of federal and provincial dollars.
The three welcome centres in Peel Region, west of Toronto, serve more than 4,400 people each year. The Vancouver School Board has one centralized welcome centre and a team of school-based settlement workers who assist more than 3,500 new immigrants each year. In Calgary, where immigration rates are soaring, two welcome centres and settlement workers at 24 schools served 8,000 clients last school year – a 30-per-cent increase over the year before.
While Aayushmaan and his older sister, Yashasvi, wrote exams to assess their grade level in a separate room, their parents, Kuldeep and Sarita Rana, listened intently as Ms. Joseph introduced them to new concepts such as nut allergies, parent councils and what happens when there is a snowstorm.
"So it's okay if we call the school or ask to speak with the teacher?" said Aayushmaan's dad.
"More than okay, that's a good thing," Ms. Joseph said.
"No nuts at all?" said Aayushmaan's mom.
"None. Some children have very serious allergies to them," Ms. Joseph said.
Most families who are new to Canada have a honeymoon period with the education system. After the novelty wears off, they notice quirks they may find less appealing.
Families from Southeast Asian countries in particular may worry that their children are devoting significantly less time to homework and memorization drills. They may balk at math assignments that direct students to show their work, or essays that ask for analysis and critical thinking rather than summarization.
Ms. Joseph remembers one immigrant mother who was disturbed when teachers encouraged her daughter to go into hotel management.
"She wasn't convinced that that was even a career."
Yashasvi Rana, 16, has done her own research and already knows she wants to study engineering at the University of Waterloo. She is a diligent student, a perfectionist even, and double-checked all her work throughout her three-hour academic assessment at the We Welcome The World Centre. Afterward, the family sat around a table in a nearby classroom as a teacher explained her results. Although Yashasvi aced the mathematics portion of the test, she apologized when the teacher pointed out room for improvement in her essay.
Her younger brother had a much tougher time in his two-hour assessment. He studied English back in India, and his cursive writing is perfect, although he barely speaks or understands the language. In Ontario's elementary schools, children are placed according to age, rather than ability, so Aayushmaan will begin Grade 6 on Tuesday. This was a surprise for the Ranas, because their youngest hasn't been in Grade 5 yet, and was sick with pneumonia for much of Grade 4.
He'll need extra support from his classroom teacher and his parents.
For all the difficulties of settling into a new school, in a new country, in a foreign tongue, Aayushmaan and his sister were both anxious for the new school year to start. Asked for his impression of Canadian schools, the youngest Rana opened his eyes wide behind his plum-coloured wire-rimmed glasses.
"Beautiful," he said, drawing out each syllable, and then added in Hindi that he was also impressed with how nice the hallways smell.
His sister has a different idea.
"I've always wanted to go to school here," she said. "Canada is a place where everything is fair."