Canada has won international praise for the academic success of its immigrant and first-generation students, but a glaring exception to its enviable record has appeared, with a high dropout rate for young Spanish speakers at the country's biggest school board.
A probe of the situation has turned up various explanations, from the observation that the students are being pushed into jobs to support their families, subjected to stereotypes that cast them as stupid and lazy, and struggling without appropriate language supports.
A new report is offering solutions for one of the worst performing groups in Toronto's schools.
As a group, Spanish-speaking students within the Toronto District School Board have consistently struggled on standardized tests, and about 40 per cent don't finish high school. It's a troubling trend for the largest school board in a country that the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development recently lauded as one of the most equitable in the world.
Yet school boards have been slow to examine why this group is not thriving, or to examine demographic data in relation to educational performance.
"Developing strategies for addressing these challenges is a major challenge, since there is very little research about the experiences of Latino and Latina students in the context of either Toronto schools in particular or Canadian schools more generally," said Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, a professor at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and the report's lead researcher.
Canada has traditionally looked to studies and reports from the United States, where the struggles of Spanish-speaking students have been closely examined, he said, but different immigration policies, histories and populations mean that the U.S. data probably don't apply this side of the border.
In focus groups and interviews, about 60 high-school students told researchers that they didn't have the ESL supports they needed, and that Spanish-speaking supports were scarce. They listed stereotypes perpetuated by their classmates and occasionally teachers, including an assumption that all Spanish speakers are poor and Mexican.
The report said many of the students work in the evenings to help their families, and some may make academic choices that allow them to get jobs quickly, rather than taking courses that appeal to them.
One Grade 12 interview subject who worked nights in a factory in addition to going to school full-time likened these problems to carrying rocks in a burlap bag with her throughout her school day.
The authors' recommendations include that the TDSB offer a student guide in Spanish, encourage part-time job opportunities that do not interfere with school success, and add courses in Latin American history and culture.
Executive officer for student and community equity Lloyd McKell said the report and its recommendations will be used to close the achievement gap for Spanish-speaking students in TDSB schools.