A Peel District School Board trustee claims English as a Second Language (ESL) learning in Peel is discriminatory and needs a massive overhaul.

Balbir Sohi says in its current form, students are penalized for speaking more than one language, adding that the first time her son was placed in the ESL program was after he spoke Punjabi in class with another student.

“I was really shocked to know that,” she tells CityNews. “He is born in Canada, we all speak English at home, but yes, we do speak Punjabi.”

Because Sohi and her family speak Punjabi at home, her son was placed in the ESL program throughout elementary school.

“It shouldn’t be based on what language you speak at home,” she said. “It should be based on the proper assessment of the language.”

“The current processes in place, I feel, they’re biased, they’re inequitable, and they’re discriminatory towards students whose families speak another language at home. And that is mostly, I would say, immigrant families.”

Sohi says the school never discussed her son’s ESL placement with her, nor was she ever asked for consent.

“I never received any call from anyone until Grade 9,” she explained. “My son came home and said the teacher said that he can take extra time to complete his exam.”

Since then, she has called for the school board to review the program, and last year she put forward a motion calling for annual monitoring of Canadian-born ESL students. But since then she says there has been little movement, with more families coming forward every day with similar experiences.

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Sohi says the stigma surrounding ESL takes a huge toll on the students, pointing out her son was made fun of in class.

“We are really impacting the mental health of these students, making these kids feel that they’re losing their identities,” she says. “He also felt bad, ‘why am I being discriminated just because we speak another language at home.’”

In a statement to CityNews, the Peel District School Board says, “Multilingual learners in ESL programs are identified by staff at schools through data, assessment, and observation. The assessments are reflective of a snapshot in time and there are limitations to assessment data gathered in a short (1-3 hour) visit with teachers who are new to the students. Schools are highly encouraged to develop accountability structures to check in on students throughout the term, to ensure program placements are supporting their achievement and well-being.

The school board adds that collaboration with the student’s family is essential.

“Every teacher, if they are profiling a student as an ESL student, there should be proper documentation, there should be proper discussion with their parents,” says Sohi.

The Ministry of Education has also set out requirements for school boards when students are being placed in ESL programs, and they include

  • Interviews with students and their parents/families about previous access to schooling;
  • Experiences in school;
  • Migration history and family circumstances;
  • Health;
  • The student’s strengths, hobbies, and interests;
  • And any special needs.

It’s also worth noting the Peel District School Board is set to receive $34.9 million in ESL allocation this year.