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Altona and Morden – SWIS Program is Encouraging Newcomers in Local School Divisions

February 13, 2019

Through SWIS, a settlement worker serves as a liaison between students and their parents, and the school system to ensure newcomers are receiving the support and information they need to settle successfully. File photo.

A pilot program that helps newcomers integrate into their new school and community appears to be having an impact.

Regional Connections launched the Settlement Workers in Schools, or SWIS, program in the fall in partnership with Border Land and Western school divisions. The implementation saw one full-time and one part-time SWIS worker hired to operate in Western School Division, and one full-time and two part-time SWIS workers in Border Land School Division.

Through SWIS, a settlement worker serves as a liaison between students and their parents, and the school system to ensure newcomers are receiving the support and information they need to settle successfully. 

Cassia Wiebe, SWIS worker in Western School Division, says it could be as simple as doing a school tour before the student begins classes.

“We physically walk through the schools with the parents and the kids and we point out the gym, the music room, and the water fountains because for some of them basic things like that aren’t normal, they maybe don’t come from schools that have those things.”

“(We are) trying to help them understand and give them the smoothest path to success, and then also helping them keep true to who they are and their culture and honour that,” she added.

After navigating the school registration and orientation process, SWIS workers also help newcomers to understand things like school newsletters and reminders throughout the year.

Val Klassen is a SWIS worker in the Border Land School Division. She says the 80-85 students they help in the division, along with their families, are encouraged by this program.

“They feel like there’s a place where they can come with their questions, especially when they don’t have the language. Some of the SWIS workers already have a relationship with them so then they aren’t so nervous to ask a question and be misunderstood,” she said. “And sometimes it’s as simple as giving them the encouragement they need to know that people want to help, which they may have not experienced in their home country or the country that they fled from.”

Shauna Hamm, Student Services Manager with Border Land School Division, says developing a trusting relationship is a key part to the job of a settlement worker.

“Often it’s common for parents to be not sure about what they should ask at school or they don’t want to ask all of those questions to the school, so I think a really key support that our settlement workers provide is a safe place,” she explained. “I think often settlement workers can answer those questions from their experience but often they also provide a good bridge to help parents ask those questions of the school, or to help school staff know that there’s confusion.”

SWIS workers also facilitate after-school clubs or sports activities in the community, and information sessions on topics like preparing for winter.

According to feedback, the newcomers appreciate this support and Hamm says that is evidenced by the positive attendance in not only the community activities but also in the classroom.

As for the future of the program, Wiebe said she would like to see tailor-made integration strategies based on a newcomer’s culture and corresponding needs.

“Realizing that somebody that comes from the Philippines is going to need much different help than someone that comes from Kazakhstan…or India, and they’re all going to need different things…and that a newcomer is not just a newcomer.”

Val Klassen, BLSD SWIS worker, and Shauna Hamm, student services manager.
Cassia Wiebe is one of two SWIS workers in Western School Division.

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