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A Toronto School Where the Kindergartners Speak 40 Languages

TORONTO — Amna’s first language was Urdu. Her friend Talyah’s was Arabic.

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Catherine Porter
, New York Times

TORONTO — Amna’s first language was Urdu. Her friend Talyah’s was Arabic.

But the other day in the corner of a classroom, they spoke English in between giggles, while spilling marbles into a funnel.

The girls are students at Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy — a school in the Thorncliffe Park neighborhood of Toronto that was built just for kindergarten children from the nearby apartment buildings.

The school has 630 students, all between the ages of 4 and 6, and most are the children of immigrants. This makes up 24 classes of kindergartners.

They arrive speaking 40 languages but very little English, reflecting the motto of Toronto, “Diversity Our Strength.” So teachers wear cords around their necks with little laminated pictures giving basic instructions.

One shows an image of a person pushing another, with a line through it. No pushing. There are others, too. Line Up. Stop. Breathe.

“In the beginning, there is lots of miming,” said Stephanie Hammond, a teacher.

Another cord has drawings of faces in different emotional states, so the children can expand their vocabularies around feelings.

“At first it was confusing,” said Lin, a 6-year-old Syrian refugee, waiting in line to enter the school. But, she said, soon “I knew all the words in English. Now I am teaching my mom and dad.”

From the outside, Fraser Mustard is a two-story box of glass, metal and cola-colored brick. Even the playground isn’t inspiring — a fenced-in yard with some toys scattered around the wood chips.

But because of sheer numbers, the staff here has developed specialized programs unknown to most kindergartens in Canada.

There’s a science and technology program, “maker space” where children do projects like making still movies of homemade birds in flight. They sketch paintings with graphite pencils in a bright hallway that’s been transformed into an artists’ studio.

Inside room 208, Hammond sat at a small table, cutting paper with four “friends” — the school’s gender-neutral replacement for “boys and girls.” The other 20 were playing at various “learning areas” around the room.

Ontario expanded kindergarten from a few hours to the full day in 2010, trying to increase the skills of children entering first grade, and to catch their difficulties earlier.

Ten students in Room 208 have special needs.

One of them is Zainab, who wears her hair up in a pink scrunchie and has just pinched one of her classmates again.

Zainab spoke only Pashto when she arrived two years ago, and not much of that either.

But she no longer needs the special book that Hammond made filled with pictures she could point to when the words failed her.

With the school’s recommendation, her hearing was tested last year, revealing that she is deaf in one ear. So Hammond always wears an amplifier around her neck for story time.

Fraser Mustard has a resource team of special education experts who work with each teacher to develop specialized plans for children. They call this the “inclusive model.”

“My job I to find out about each child and what I can do to help them move forward,” Hammond said.

“I’m sorry,” Zainab said quietly, repeating Hammond’s words. “Can I have the baby toy?”

Fraser Mustard is a public school, like most in Canada. Here, the public education system is largely seen as the convection oven for multiculturalism — especially important in a city where 46 percent of residents are immigrants.

The schools are considered good enough quality that even wealthy parents send their children to them.

“You have kids from different cultures, with different levels of income,” explained Charles Pascal, the professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who developed the province’s early learning plan. “That’s why later they don’t understand homophobia and racism.”

Fraser Mustard’s back doors lead out onto the yard of the elementary school next door. The view from there is a collage of apartment buildings. There are more than 30 along Thorncliffe Park Drive, a crescent road that runs less than 1 mile cradling the school.

Some are enormous, spanning three wings and rising more than 20 stories. They were built in the 1950s for the city’s elite, with swimming pools and spacious units. There is a leafy ravine below, with views of the city’s downtown towers in the distance.

Immigrants began pouring in during the 1970s. In recent years, the area has been transformed into a little South Asia, with a mosque and a large halal grocery store, where women in abayas and niqabs shop for Medina dates and Afghani naan.

More than one-third live below the poverty line, so many double up in the apartments, according to local social workers.

The elevators get so packed after school lets out that some building managers put employees in the lobbies to keep peace and order. Most children, when they arrive at Fraser Mustard for the first time, stop at the bottom of the stairs, bewildered. They don’t know how to climb them.

In response, the school principal had the staff test the children’s gross motor skills. The results were so alarming that she hired two teachers this past year to start a remedial program.

“Many can’t jump 2 inches,” said Amanda Frederich, standing in the school’s skylit, triangular atrium. “They can’t walk 6 feet head to toe on a line. They can’t skip.”

At her feet, three children rolled out on their bellies along stability balls to strengthen their core muscles. One wobbled along a low balance beam.

In the lineup before a row of stairs made out of thick pads stood 6-year-old Valeed, who lives in one of the towers with his mother and four siblings.

He approached the stairs with resigned exhaustion, hopping up each step with two feet, tipping over onto his hands, standing up and pulling up his pants, before doing it again. It looked laborious.

But it was progress. Two months ago, he couldn’t hop at all.

“I’ve been practicing,” he said.

Just before the buzzer rang again at 3:20, the students in room 208 sat in their cubbies with their jackets and bags on, and rehearsed for their end-of-year concert.

“We’re a rainbow made of children, we’re a family singing songs,” their voices rose and fell in a civil rights song from the movie “Billy Jack,” but tweaked for the school. “There is nothing that can stop us, rainbow love is much too strong.”

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