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Welcome to the Jungle

Walking the halls of their new school was harder than Alice and Karishma thought it would be. Although friends, they came from very different cultures, backgrounds, religions and even separate parts of the world. They dressed differently from each other and differently from everyone else.

Karishma describes that first day as feeling like a “salmon swimming upstream”. Every class was a challenge – where to sit, who to sit with. Lunch was equally difficult – with older students sitting in established places. The two girls stuck together and made it through each day supporting each other.

In the Trenches

When you start at any new school it’s always hard to make friends. For the over twenty five thousand new immigrants to Canada who start at a high school in Toronto each year, it can be double trouble: you don’t know the rules and you don’t know how to “play the game”.

Cliques in high schools are groups of friends, but not all groups of friends have to be cliques. The way people make a group a clique (say: kleek) is by leaving some kids out, by excluding them on purpose. It is not unusual for one or two popular kids to try to select who gets to be in their clique and who gets left out.

Everyone feels left out by their friends once in a while – kids, teenagers and even adults. But, sometimes kids in the clique are mean to kids they think are different or don’t belong.

For instance, when Alice emigrated from Russia – and started grade 6 – she learned English well and integrated fast. When attending grade 8, she was a student leader and member of the most popular group. But then, when she started grade 9, she lost her social status.

“When my friends and I started in the new school for grade 9 we all didn’t stay part of the popular crowd. Some of my old friends don’t even speak to me anymore and that makes me feel left out,” says Alice.

Both boys and girls have cliques and people who study these groups say girl cliques may be worse! Girl cliques are often meaner and more hurtful in the way they treat girls who aren’t in their group. Cyber bullying (harassment on the internet) and bullying are of great concerns to educators.

What is the difference between a clique and a gang? According to Public and Safety Canada’s website a gang is “an organized group of adolescents and/or young adults who rely on group intimidation and violence, and commit criminal acts in order to gain power and recognition and/or control certain areas of unlawful activity”.

There are many interventions in place in high schools to ensure that youth, when searching for a place to belong, don’t decide to be part of a gang. If you have worries or concerns about your child, notice behaviour changes or attitudes that you deem out of character, contact the school’s guidance counsellor or principal for assistance. The school administrators are trained professionals and are there to help. If you are a young person who is tempted to join a gang, communicate with your parents or call the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868, 24 hours a day.

Under Pressure

High school has a LOT of pressure from many different directions. A Toronto teacher explained that some of the biggest problems these newcomer youth face are language difficulties since they must pass the Ontario literacy test in grade 10 to receive a high school diploma. Most will receive ongoing ESL training throughout high school (if the school board has funding and resources available). In addition, he stated that newcomer youth are often behind in the curriculum, depending on what country they are coming from. Some students who are refugees have missed large amounts of education depending on their individual circumstances and may have fallen behind.

Aim High

Pressure on these students to succeed comes from all different directions. Their teachers have clear teaching goals to achieve certain outcomes. Their parents have expectations of success for their kids in their newly adopted country. Their peers exert peer pressure socially and academically and every individual has their own expectations for their success.

In some cases, the motivation to succeed is unmistakable. Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) high school graduates this June, the 3 top students came from immigrant families. Their families played a major role, according to those students, in their study habits, social activities and interests. Their high achievements have lead them all to university.

However, immigrant youth also face a much higher drop-out rate than other students. According to TDSB the drop-out rate for students who are foreign born, on average is much higher than those born in Canada. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Since 2006 TDSB has focused its energies and programs on “stay in school” plans for all students, including early intervention for students with learning challenges, disabilities and social issues. From all observations, the plans are moving toward success for all students.

Talking It Out

Any time you face change in your life, you make choices. Life, for all of us, is a series of choices; choose your friends; choose your classes; choose to be successful. No one chooses to make bad choices on purpose. Sometimes in life you get do-overs and sometimes you don’t. Young people act with as much integrity as adults but not necessarily the same wisdom. It is your choice to be brave enough and smart enough to ask for advice when needed and act independently when required that will help you navigate the jungle that is high school.

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