Caterina Rylance (left) spearheaded the creation of a cultural community centre at Sherwood Park’s St. Theresa Middle School along with support from school administration and central office staff, such as ESL consultant Ciara Smith (right).
In recent years Elk Island Catholic Schools’ student population has seen a climb in diversity. As a result, the district identified an increasing need to improve cultural education to promote empathy and compassion for students who have recently immigrated to Canada. Many schools within the district established goals and an action plan to address these growing needs. One unique initiative that came from these action plans was at St. Theresa Catholic School in Sherwood Park.
At St. Theresa, the staff wholeheartedly embraced the idea of making all cultures visible by setting up a cultural centre and hosting a community support night. The school recognized that it can be really tough for students and their families to move to a new place. Many of these individuals are rapidly introduced to a new language, culture, community and environment. In previous years, the school has provided academic support for English Language Learners, but the staff felt that more could be done to support students and their families.
To get the initiative off the ground, the school applied for a grant from the Aspen Centre. Following receipt of the grant, ESL lead teacher Caterina Rylance used the funding to buy furniture, posters and resources that she used to transform an unused office into a welcoming place where students’ cultures would be celebrated, embraced and practiced. Rylance received support from teachers and administrators within the school as well as the central learning services branch of Elk Island Catholic Schools.
The new centre has multiple functions and provides ample opportunity for all students to engage in the space. During class time Rylance provides one-on-one support in language and curriculum to students who are new to the school and to Canada. At lunch hour the centre is open to all students to use its games and resources. Also at lunch, the centre hosts a global café, in which all students are invited to share, speak other languages and learn from each other in an informal setting with café type beverages and conversation starters.
By displaying multilingual signage and flags from around the world, as well as having bilingual books and multicultural artifacts available, the cultural centre has become a space that many students see as a safe haven where they can practice their own culture without pressures of assimilation. The whole school has become engaged in the space since its opening on Jan. 8, 2018.
In addition to supporting students, the school also identified a need to provide more support for families who have recently immigrated. A few weeks after it opened, the cultural centre expanded to provide resources and information about community supports that are available for newcomers. In order for this aspect to come to life, the school hosted a community support night on Jan. 29. Bringing together 10 community organizations that support newcomers to Canada, the event provided information about available supports to members of the Elk Island Catholic Schools community.
Due to its inclusive qualities, the cultural centre has provided a bridge between all students at St. Theresa. Students who are new to the school feel more at home when they are greeted in the space where their culture and language are represented and appreciated. The centre has also helped current students understand and embrace the newcomers because of their heightened appreciation and understanding for who the newcomers are and where they came from.
Although the initiative is in its infancy, it has already made all students more culturally aware and interested in learning more about other cultures. There is no doubt that, as the project continues to grow, the impact on students and their families within our community will be long lasting. ❚
Caterina Rylance is an ESL lead teacher at St. Theresa Middle School. Ciara Smith is an ESL consultant with Elk Island Catholic Schools.