• By: Harvey Chartrand

Family Welcome Centre Helps Newcomers Adjust to Ottawa’s Educational System

The Ottawa Catholic School Board Family Welcome Centre (FWC) for Newcomers first opened its doors as a pilot project in February 2006. “That year, we welcomed 29 newcomer students,” recalls Nicki Dunlop, an educational consultant with the FWC. “Since then, we have supported and registered just over 1,300 newcomer students. Reception and orientation services are offered to newcomer families whose first language is not English so they can successfully integrate into the Ottawa Catholic school system and their new community. Multicultural Liaison Officers are also on hand to meet with families about settlement concerns ranging from housing to health and employment.”

Located at 570 West Hunt Club Road, the FWC is easily accessible by public transit. Free parking is available.

The FWC supports newcomer students so they enjoy a positive and successful transition to their new school environment and to the community at large, Ms. Dunlop explains.

“Imagine moving to a new country and city where you don’t speak the language and are not familiar with the educational system. You don’t know what to expect, who to ask and what it might be like for your child. In the meantime, you are trying to find adequate and affordable housing and secure employment, while getting life started in this new place. Imagine how overwhelming this can be for anyone moving here – let alone a newcomer who does not speak English and who is not familiar with the education system. Things we take for granted like peanut-free schools, lockers, agendas, hot dog days, fire drills, lockdowns, group work, volunteer hours, compulsory courses, academic pathways – college versus university, and so forth – are not familiar to our newcomers.

“The work we do at the FWC is aimed at making each child’s transition to the new school community as smooth and successful as possible. Our intake and assessment teachers do this by being respectful and listening to each family’s story and learning about their children. We provide parents with information so they know what to expect and who they should see about asking for help at the school. We want to empower these families, and encourage them to become involved in their child’s school life, ask questions, and seek clarification and support when needed. Assessment information is then shared with schools, making for an easier transition for the student.

“Working at the FWC is humbling,” Ms. Dunlop observes. “Each family has an amazing and inspiring story to tell. All parents of newcomers want the best possible opportunities for their children and view the FWC as a positive first step. Oftentimes, parents return to the FWC after the intake to discuss challenges in settlement. Lasting relationships are built. Children are eager to begin school and make new friends, to do well and please their parents, yet hesitant about starting fresh, where they know no one and cannot easily communicate in English. Our families are always thankful for the support they receive.

“I was particularly struck by the four-year-old who wondered how his teacher would be able to understand him in Spanish… the 16-year-old who was so happy and thankful to be reunited with her mother in Canada after several years apart… the young girl who had never sat beside a boy before in school and was worried about having to talk and do group work with boys… and students who have never had a lock or locker before. Each of these kids has a story… they are brave and inspiring.

“Families that come to the FWC range from diplomats to refugees arriving from their homeland under conditions of extreme urgency. Some may have suffered traumatic experiences. Regardless of where these families come from, we are happy to serve them at the FWC.”

To find out more about the Ottawa Catholic School Board’s Family Welcome Centre, visit http://www.occdsb.on.ca/content.php?doc=6865.