Photo: Jennifer Friesen
Daljit Parhar, left, and Ismail Dandia talk about their struggles growing up as ELL (English Language Learner) students in Calgary.

Two Calgarians are working to remove roadblocks for English-language learner (ELL) students floundering in the city’s public-school system.

Stemming from their own struggles as former ELL students in Calgary, Ismail Dandia and Daljit Parhar launched Eroodyt, an online platform that aggregates tutors in a variety of fields.

Dandia said their focus narrowed to tutors for ELL students when they first heard about the 3.1 per cent cut to funding for ELL students in the Alberta government’s March 2015 budget.

“Hearing about the budget cuts hit hard for us because our parents are immigrants,” Dandia said. “English was pivotal to our careers, and we definitely faced a lot of challenges through the school system, especially in grade school.”

Hetty Roessingh, a professor of education at the University of Calgary, has heavily investigated issues surrounding the lack of supports for ELL students in primary schools and how that can dramatically impede academic growth.

Roessingh said the problem is often these children seem like they’re progressing — they can print, read and speak clearly — but end up hitting a wall around Grade 4 when academic demands heighten.

“When you listen to these kids, you could be easily fooled into thinking they’re better than they really are — they’re using a lot of simple vocabulary and sticking with it,” Roessingh explained. “As time goes, on that vocabulary gap widens and they get all the way to Grade 12 stuck at maybe a Grade 4 reading level.”

Dandia said he experienced exactly that when a professor returned a marked essay for a communications class he was taking in university.

“It wasn’t until post-secondary we really started feeling the pain. Essay marks we got back said our writing was equivalent to that of a fifth grader,” Dandia said. “We were failing writing classes, and reading comprehension was really challenging.”

ELL students make up approximately 25 per cent of the Calgary Board of Education’s 114,500 total students and roughly the same proportion of the 52,361 students in the Calgary Catholic School District.

Roessingh added that in the CBE’s case, the 25 per cent is not evenly distributed; student populations in northeast schools such as Falconridge, Crossing Park and James Short Memorial are up to 90 per cent ELL.

“For me the heartbreak is we’ve attracted new immigrants to Canada who are smart people whose children should be able to learn and achieve at school. But they’re not,” Roessingh said. “Now I’m seeing them on other side by the hundreds at university unprepared for the academic demands of university life.”

Sheila McLeod, director of learning services at the CBE, made a brief comment in an email that noted “some areas of concern in the 2013-2014 Provincial Achievement Test results,” but added the board “spends considerable time and resources to support their (ELL students) learning.”

Hoping to collaborate with different educational institutions around Calgary as entrepreneurs, Dandia said they’ve hit a lot of walls trying to partner with the CBE.

But those types of roadblocks haven’t impeded Eroodyt’s progress in recruiting an array of professional tutors for the online learning platform. Dandia said for parents struggling to find a tutor, Eroodyt streamlines their search by providing tutor ratings, qualifications and even criminal background checks.

“We’re just striving to provide knowledgeable tutors willing to help out students,” she said. “There is an incredible amount of value getting that foundation early on. If you don’t learn those communication skills early, you’re really at a disadvantage.”

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