Growing up in mainland China, the plan was that Jane Feng would go to university in Canada or the United States — after all, her parents wanted her to meet new people, be exposed to different ideas and broaden her world view.
But in Grade 8, Jane was ready for the challenge, repeatedly begging her parents to send her abroad for high school. Eventually, they gave in and last year she moved to Toronto to attend Grade 10 at Georges Vanier Secondary School.
“I was excited by the idea,” says Jane, 15, who’s now in Grade 11. “I wanted to come to Canada, to try a different teaching style and to learn more things.”
This year, she is among a projected number of about 2,600 international students at the Toronto District School Board, which would be a record figure. It has grown its program through marketing and recruitment efforts abroad and now boasts the highest figures of any school board in Ontario. By comparison, there were 1,700 international students in TDSB schools in 2015-16.
A joint investigation by the Toronto Star and the St. Catharines Standard looked at the exponential growth of international students, particularly in the Ontario college system. But there’s been growth in other sectors too, including students coming to attend school from Kindergarten to Grade 12.
The number of visas issued to international students headed to elementary and secondary schools in Ontario has been steadily rising in recent years, according to figures from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. For instance, in 2014, there were 21,820, while last year there were 36,645.
At the Peel District School Board there are 566 international students, up from 199 in 2015-16. And the York Region District School Board projects about 2,150, up from 1,900 in 2015-16, but down from its peak of about 2,300 in 2017-18.
The Ministry of Education projects there will be about 11,750 international students this year in its publicly funded schools across the province — that doesn’t include those attending private schools.
“Ontario is a top destination of choice for international students coming to Canada since the province is recognized around the world as a leader in providing high-quality education in a system that is safe, welcoming and accessible,” said Alexandra Adamo, press secretary for Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
The education of international students is not subsidized by the province, so school boards set their own tuition fees and keep the revenue. Last year, the TDSB generated about $32 million in revenue, which goes toward supporting the students, and remaining funds go into other programs and operations of the board. The board plans to expand the program by 200 more students over the next two years. And next year, it will hike tuition fees for all international students to $16,000 — currently, elementary students pay $13,000, and those in high school pay $14,500.
The TDSB says the fee increase will help offset the new $1,300 fee per international student that the province began taking this September. Since 2013-14 the province has collected $750 per international student, per year, attending university or college.
At the TDSB, international students are only placed in schools that have capacity. Their growth in numbers has shed light on the challenges that some kids, far from home, may be grappling with. That’s why it created a month-long orientation for new arrivals and hired additional staff to help students with issues specific to them.
In Jane’s case, her parents refused to let her come alone, so her mother accompanied her and now lives with her. That helped with the teen’s transition. She has also made new friends in school, where she started a science club, but she still misses her father, and friends, who are back in Guangdong province.
For some students, being uprooted to study here can take its toll, says Smita Sengupta, senior manager of the international students and admissions office at the TDSB.
“They’ve come here, they’re learning English, but they’re not totally integrated,” says Sengupta. “A lot of them, they still feel that they’re isolated because of the language barrier … There’s been a real increase in mental health issues … loneliness and depression.”
These issues first surfaced two years ago when the board surveyed its international students. So last year, five guidance counsellors and a centrally assigned principal were hired specifically to support international students. Students also said they wanted more networking opportunities to help them transition, so the board has set up more excursions, weekend trips and after-school activities. And, to help with integration, the TDSB, for the first time this past summer, held a month-long orientation for new high school students, which also enabled them to earn a Drama or English-as-a-second-language credit.
Get more of today’s top stories in your inbox
Sign up for the Star’s Morning Headlines newsletter for a briefing of the day’s big news.
“I wish we had thought about it years ago,” says Sengupta, noting in the past the board just held a day-long orientation session. “When I saw them on Day One and then on the day they finished, I was seeing different people. They were so motivated and had already made friends with other international students.”
Brothers Samuel Chen, 17, and Daniel Chen, 18, from Tainan City in Taiwan, say having each other to lean on has been key since moving here last year to attend Grade 11 at Georges Vanier. They are now in Grade 12 and plan to pursue post-secondary studies in Ontario.
“It’s not so challenging because since me and my brother are living together, every time we have a problem we can help each other,” said Daniel.
Although their parents are back in Taiwan — the teens live with a custodian — Samuel says they’re managing just fine.
“If we want to see them we can go through video chat. And without parents, there’s just more time for ourselves and we’re more free, we can stay out late and hang out with friends.”
Still, he hasn’t lost focus of why his parents sent him to study here: They wanted their boys to have more opportunities.
“It has been a great experience,” says Samuel, adding his classmates are all “friendly” and “they won’t judge you by the way you speak, or your accent.”
That’s been a nice surprise. Before arriving, he worried his experience would mimic what he saw in movies: New kid from another country gets bullied at school and faces discrimination.
For Jane, the different teaching styles here have been refreshing. In China, the focus is on getting students to memorize material, whereas here, “we need to express our own opinions.”
Having international students in the class enriches the experience for everyone, says Sengupta.
“They are ambassadors from their countries — and it’s a good thing for our students,” she says. “In Toronto, we are very multicultural, but there are other smaller cities that don’t have this kind of diversity, so I think it’s a win for everybody.”