By Muneezah Jawad Butt
As a new immigrant to Canada 15 years ago, little did I know that I would be spending considerable time educating myself in the education of my children. I didn’t know enough people who could guide me; in fact most of them were in the same boat!
How can you research something when you don’t even know what you are looking for? Here is a quick starter on the basics of what constitutes the education system in Canada.
The public school system in Canada is usually comprised of a District School Board and a Catholic District School Board, both according to regions. The GTA, for instance has TDSB, PEEL and HDSB as public school boards, and co-existing regional public Catholic school boards.
Private Islamic Schools
We are blessed that due to large immigrant population, Islamic schools are in abundance. However, they are all private enterprises, requiring a moderate fee. They follow the same academic structure of kindergarten till grade 12 as of public schools, with a focus on Islamic teachings. It is best to explore your immediate area for schools and arrange for a visit to get an idea of what they offer.
While public schooling is free in Canada for residents and citizens alike, there is also the option of non-Islamic private schools. There are also a few non co-ed schools in this category. Private schooling is not a cheap option and one must consider the benefits of education vs the cost. All private schools follow Canadian curriculum and administer all exams required by the board.
Babies and Pre-Schoolers
There are many day cares and Montessori’s for younger kids. Some of these are home-based as well. These are all private hence a fee. A tax rebate is available for families where both parents are working full-time and this is considered a form of childcare such cases.
Some day cares are also subsidized by the government. It is a good idea to carefully scrutinize the standards of caregivers and general feeling of facilities in such cases as our little ones are unable to articulate fully how they are treated in such settings.
The Formative Years
Education becomes mandatory at the age of six in Canada, starting at Grade 1. A few provinces, including Ontario, offer junior and senior kindergarten which you can start in September of the year your child turns four.
In other provinces this may be an everyday full day program and in some they maybe an alternate full day program.
As Canada is a dual language country, you have the option of giving your child an education in French partially or completely.
There are French schools you can enroll your child starting from Kindergarten. However a pure French school where all instruction is in French usually requires the child to have at least 1 Francophone (French speaking) parent. This is decided on a case to case basis and varies from province to province.
The alternate is to place them in French Immersion. This is starting to gain popularity as it gives the child the best of both worlds. French Immersion starts at two entry points: early immersion, starting from early school years, like SK in TDSB and Grade 1 in PEEL, or extended immersion streams that again have two to three entry points, like Grade 4 or 7. The instruction is split 50-50 between English and French. A total of 3800 hours in French must be completed by the end of Grade 8. Another step is an Extended French Program where French must be the language of instruction for 25 per cent of the total time at every grade level.
There is also the simple option of regular public primary education from grades 1-8 where children follow the Canadian curriculum and also start a core French program from Grades 4-8 where they receive a basic working knowledge of French. This is where the majority of parents choose to send their children.
What about Catholic schools?
The option of Catholic primary schools is not open to us as Muslims. However Catholic high schools do not require a child to be baptised and indeed a lot of Muslim families believe that since catholic schools receive more funding, have better rules and regulations in place and thus are a superior form of public high schools.
Secondary Education: ALP, SHSM and OYAP
Aside from Catholic and regular high schools there is also the option for a child to go into ALP in Grade 9 at the start of high school. This Accelerated Learning Program paves the way for the child to take the IB program in grades 11-12.
The International Baccalaureate program is available at some international schools and some are state-funded. However there are some fees involved. It is an internationally recognized two-year diploma which provides a challenging curriculum for students who are highly motivated.
Application for this program starts at grade 8 and those selected are initially put into the ALP so that they are prepared to tackle a fast paced and challenging curriculum. Selection for the IB program requires strong academic credentials, teacher recommendations, and a formal application process. Not every high school offers the IB program and it is a competitive program to enter.
Less common courses in high school are also available for those who wish to take a less conventional route. The Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) is a program that gives students a focus in their senior high school years. A student must take two Grade 11 and two Grade 12 courses in a specialized area, and a co-operative education course. These students receive a special Red Seal diploma and transcript as evidence of their completion of a Specialist High Skills Major.
The Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program (OYAP) allows students to obtain their high school diploma while taking a coop in an apprentice-able trade and meeting certain minimum credit requirements.
Home-schooling: a different choice
If after all these you still feel that you don’t find the option that suits your needs there is always home-schooling. Though uncommon it is by no means obsolete. If you choose to go this route please be aware that legal requirements vary from province to province and some provinces require only notification of the child being home-schooled while others require regular reporting.
It is a big undertaking and one must be fully committed before embarking on this route.
For our parents who have children with special needs, rest assured. It is law in Canada that all public schools have some form of special needs program. Highly specialised care may not be provided in regular public school setting however there are schools which can cater to most requirements. Some might be fee based but again there is heavy government funding support.
Canada has a plethora of options for the enlightening of our children’s minds. It is up to us as parents to decide which stream suits our child and to make sure we thoroughly understand what it entails. It requires time, commitment and most of all the ability to advocate for our children and ask questions that need answering. Never be afraid to approach your local school board office and get the information you need.
About the author:
Muneezah Jawad Butt was born and raised in Dubai, became a lawyer in London, England and then hopped on a plane to make Canada her home 15 years ago. Her vast travels and legal training bring a unique perspective into her undertakings. These days, she finds gratification in being the full time CEO of her household.