At this Durham school 70 per cent of kids don't speak English at home

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AJAX — It’s Friday afternoon at Terry Fox Public School in Ajax and the school is buzzing as parents stream through the front doors.

In the foyer, a sign welcomes everyone to “Family Friday” and reads, “feel free to join your child in class for the afternoon.”

The sign is posted in English, as well as eight other languages including Tamil, Urdu, Farsi, Hindi, Arabic and Spanish.

This is how the school warmly welcomes its culturally diverse families into the fold.

“The community has changed significantly, even in the time that I’ve been here,” says Deirdre Morgenstern, who has been the principal at Terry Fox Public School for five years.

About 40 per cent of the school’s 420 students are English language learners, and 70 per cent do not speak English at home.

“We’re getting a lot more families who are brand new to Canada,” Morgenstern says. “Whereas we used to have families who had first arrived in Toronto, and then came to us after being there for a few years, those families are now sponsoring relatives to come direct to Ajax.”

These stats set the school apart from many others in Durham and present a unique set of challenges when it comes to student success, communicating between school and home and making parents feel welcome and engaged.

When Morgenstern arrived at Terry Fox she “made a conscience decision” to rebrand the school and embrace its diversity.

That meant getting “meticulous” about hiring staff that speak the languages of the school’s families.

Morgenstern networked through the Durham Black Educators Network, the Muslim Educators Network of Durham and the Durham Educators Network for South Asians. There are now staff at the school who are fluent in all of the most common languages spoken by school families.

“It’s a relationship piece. The community sees that we are making an effort,” Morgenstern says.

Thanusa Selvaratnam, a Grade 5 teacher at Terry Fox, knows firsthand how communication barriers can impact how parents connect with their child’s school.

“That was something I experienced growing up, because my parents didn't speak English very well,” she says. “Being able to communicate with newcomers is something that I feel very strongly about. It’s hard when you don’t speak the language and you really do want to support your child.”

She speaks Tamil, and says that has been “very helpful” when it comes to communicating with parents and students.

Selvaratnam loves Family Fridays at Terry Fox, which allow parents to sit in on their children’s afternoon classes so they can see firsthand what is being taught.

She says it’s “very exciting” for the kids and gives parents the tools to help with school work at home.