An invitation to come together: report explores collaboration between schools, newcomer-serving agencies

When the pandemic forced schools to move to online learning in 2020, newcomer families who were already facing barriers now faced a whole new set of challenges. 

“I am an educator and was working for Alberta Education when Covid started. One of my roles was as the lead for  student refugee support in the Ministry.” says Dr. Kathy Toogood, the author of a newly-released report called Invoking the Village: Enhancing Collaboration Between Schools and Community Agencies To Support Newcomers.

“I’ve been involved with this work for a couple of years in the city,” says Dr. Toogood.

“This work supporting refugees is the work of my heart, so after I retired from the government in 2020, I continued to attend these meetings.” 

Dr. Toogood was a teacher and principal for more than 20 years, and understands the education system well. Which is why she was an asset to continue to have at the Edmonton Local Immigration Partnership (ELIP) meetings focused on education.

“Most of the meetings were about emergent issues, sharing what was happening with Covid,” she says. “Sharing challenges with community groups and knowing what was happening from the school board’s perspective.”

Dr. Toogood put together a proposal to study the collaboration going on between immigrant-serving agencies and schools, which was funded by Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

“What we wanted to find out was: how can we deepen this collaboration with schools?” says Dr. Toogood.

“The community agency folks were eager to be involved and share their stories.”

The aim was to both highlight successes and identify barriers to collaboration.

“We wanted to get to the bottom of what was impeding collaboration and that remains the focus,” she says. “But we also wanted to gather stories of success because we knew in some cases collaboration was happening in a really positive way between schools and community agencies.”

In Edmonton, both the school boards work with a site-based decision making model, and one of the issues identified was inconsistent collaboration across different schools. 

“I had been a principal myself so I understood the advantages and challenges of that model,” says Dr. Toogood. “I think one of the real aims was uncovering the strengths and opportunities in working with community agencies.”

“We wanted to be able to say: here are all the things community partners can offer to schools,” she says. “Often teachers or principals might be frustrated because they can’t communicate with the parents. There’s all these people here willing and able to help you understand each other.”

One big support is interpretation, translating language and broader cultural understanding. Educating parents about school policies, how schools operate, and broader communication to build understanding so students can learn and be supported in the best way possible. Also educating schools about cultural practices, and understanding the strengths and values that newcomer families come with.

This is just one example of identifying resources that a lot of people were not aware of, that schools could call on for help in supporting families. 

“I think in many ways the pandemic uncovered some gaps or barriers that were there before,” says Dr. Toogood.  “We saw the challenges of access to space and technology when learning shifted online. 

Emergency remote learning revealed that a lot of families didn’t have the technology required, or large families didn’t have enough laptops for their children or enough space for multiple children in different grades to attend school in an effective way. 

Without the in-person contact with community partners, that supportive mechanism either broke down or it took a while to catch up with the situation. In response, many community partners partnership shifted their  focus to getting technology in the hands of families.

“These are very basic things that we assume people have, so community agencies had to pivot and shift services to address that,” says Dr. Toogood. 

“We recognize that there are no easy solutions. There's no one-size-fits-all. This report was meant to be an invitation for people to come together.”

The report aimed to identify the services offered by community partners that could be a significant help in communicating with families and keeping the kids engaged in learning. 

Dr. Toogood hopes the report will inform the wider education community about the positive potential in collaborating with community agencies. 

“We’ve seen what’s possible in some schools, and want to expand that by entering into that dialogue,'' she says.  “I want educators to know there’s help out there. To relieve the pressure on schools and help them be more effective in communicating with families, and engaging students. We want to help students make progress, so that they can thrive and create a bright future for themselves and their families.”

To read the full report, click here.



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