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Grad rates jump for Somali students thanks toPROGRAMS geared to help

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Grade 11 students Amal Absiye, left, and Hamza Bashir at Jarvis Collegiate. Grad rates among Somali students are going up thanks to special programs addressing past achievement gaps.
Grade 11 students Amal Absiye, left, and Hamza Bashir at Jarvis Collegiate. Grad rates among Somali students are going up thanks to specialPROGRAMSaddressing past achievement gaps.

The plan runs the gamut: Nudging Somali-speaking teens into taking leadership roles at school; ensuring their culture and faith are part of their courses; training their teachers; reaching out to their parents.

And over an eight-year period, those efforts have paid off: 80 perCENT of Somali teens now earn high school diplomas, a jump of 27 percentage points between 2005 and 2013.

While the community still struggles in the school system — results on the Grade 10 literacy test and standardized math testsCONTINUE to lag, as well as the number of credits teens earn in Grades 9 and 10 — the increase in graduates means the plan has almost closed the gap with the Toronto District School Board’s overall rate of 83 per cent.

“When we have such a high-level of buy-in from students and the community, inevitably we trend toward improvement,” said Jim Spyropoulos, executive superintendent in charge of equity and inclusive schools. He predicts Somali youth will soon surpass the board-wide graduation rate.

He attributes theBOOST to programs funded by Ontario’s Ministry of Education that help schools in at-risk urban neighbourhoods, as well as board initiatives geared toward providing social, emotional and academic support specifically for Somali students, plus training to help educators create a classroom that reflects the diversity of the city.

Improved grad rates were being achieved even before a task force to help Somali teens — vehemently opposed by a vocal group in the community — was set up.

Spyropoulos said the task force’s 2014 recommendations, which include mentoring and university planning, were built on the previous initiatives.

“The kids were telling us what’s working,” and those initiatives were included in the task force plan, he said.

The community has changed over the years, he added. Twenty years ago, many of the Somali teens in Toronto schools were recent arrivals from a war-torn country. Today, they’re mainly Canadian-born kids who face different stressors — including trail-blazing for the next generation.

“Eighty perCENT of them are now born in Canada,” added Spyropoulos. “We need to be effectively plugged into the community as to what are the realities of today, coping with second-generation stresses.”

Part of the focus will be on post-secondary education, which the board is tracking, because “these kids are pioneers… when they go (on to post-secondary), they change the world for generations after” who will then be more likely to go toCOLLEGE or university.

Among Somali teens who graduated in 2005, 24 perCENT were accepted into an Ontario university and 13 perCENT to college. Among the 2013 group, 41 per cent went to university, and 20 per cent to college. The university enrolment rate is lower than that of the board as a whole, which is 50 per cent.

The numbers are part of an August report from the board’s research department, which tracks certain groups of students whose average achievement is also below board-wide averages, including those with aboriginal heritage, Afghans and speakers of Portuguese, Somali and Spanish.

Jarvis Collegiate Institute in downtown Toronto — where roughly 30 per cent of the 770 students are of Somali heritage — has implemented several initiatives to help them, in particular encouraging Somali teens to get involved in student life. In the process, the school has improved their post-secondary graduation rates to almost equal that of the rest of the student population.

Principal Michael Harvey — who just returned Thursday from a four-day trip with the Grade 9 students to a camp up north, where he arranged for two rooms to be set aside for Muslim students to pray — said the school works at being welcoming and supportive for all teens from the day they arrive.

It runs boys’ and girls’ groups specifically for Somali students, which provide mentoring, and they meet weekly to discuss any issues of concern.

Harvey said there is a strong connection between school and home, and he hasPERSONALLYcalled Somali parents to invite them to come out and join the school’s council.

Grade 11 student Amal Absiye, who plans a law career, said she has found Jarvis incredibly welcoming — “I was lost my first couple of days, and Grade 12s walked me to class” — and the teachers attentive and helpful.

“Here, they truly care about you,” she said. “There is an aura.”

As a school leader — she, too, went on the camping trip, in charge of a cabin of Grade 9 girls — she said she appreciates being able to be a role model, especially to those “who don’t feel they can speak up for themselves,” something she has noticed among Somali youth.

Grade 11 student Hamza Bashir, who hopes to become an engineer, was also a camp leader. He said his cousins have set good examples for him — one is at a U.S. university on a scholarship, another at the University of Waterloo — but he knows of others who haven’t been successful.

Absiye said if students are struggling, “It’s sad… because you wish they’d all do well.”

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