Posted on July 20, 2018

A Toronto School Where the Kindergarten Students Speak 40 Languages

Catherine Porter, New York Times, July 20, 2018


[Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy] 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.


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


From the outside, Fraser Mustard is a two-storey box of glass, metal and cola-coloured 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.


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.


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.”


In Canada, the public education system is largely seen as the convection oven for multiculturalism — especially important in a city where 46 per cent of residents are immigrants.

The schools are considered good enough 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.”


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


[One student] 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.


“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.”