As Marcela and Alexandru Lupu relaxed one afternoon in an apartment living room sparsely furnished with electronic equipment and a sofa set, it was apparent that the couple brought little with them when they emigrated from Romania last August.
But one prized possession that did make the journey is a blue folio in which Ms. Lupu has proudly filed every diploma and certificate of merit ever awarded to her strapping 17-year-old son Alex, now a Grade 11 student at Forest Hill Collegiate. It’s a compendium of accomplishment in languages, math and sports, some awarded for top performance in national competitions.
After the Lupus, both electrical engineers, got their immigration papers last spring, they e-mailed relatives in Toronto for suggestions on the city’s top high schools. They then found an apartment, near Lawrence and the Allen Expressway, specifically so Alex could attend Forest Hill. “This is the reason we are here,” says Ms. Lupu. “We came for him.”
In all likelihood, Alex Lupu, like the vast majority of Romanian-Canadian teens, will stay in school and walk away with a Grade 12 diploma. According to a Toronto District School Board cohort study released this week, students from Romania had the highest graduation rate and the lowest dropout rate (85.3 and 10.8 per cent, respectively) of any linguistic group represented. By contrast, among all TDSB students who’d enrolled in Grade 9 in 2000, 64 per cent had graduated and 24 per cent had dropped out by 2005.
According to many Romanian-Canadian immigrants, often trained in technical vocations, the focus on education has to do with attitudes formed during the lean years of the Ceausescu Communist regime. “To get somewhere, the only chance we had was to study,” says Amalia Dina, an IBM systems administrator who came to Toronto in 1999 and has a 14-year-old son, Stefan, in the International Baccalaureate program at Victoria Park Secondary.
“Education was mandatory,” says Martha Teodosiu, the managing partner of New Wave Travel, who has lived in Canada since 1973 and has a daughter at Northern Secondary. “There was no such thing as dropping out. The aim was to go to university. You grew up with that and you instill it in your children.”
Quitting school is simply not an option, says Ms. Teodosiu, whose parents were teachers. “I honestly don’t know anybody whose kids have dropped out. The ones who really have trouble,” Ms. Teodosiu continues, “they’re sent to Romania and stay for a year with the grandparents.” An extended dose of strict Romanian schooling usually does the trick, she adds.
York University professor and filmmaker Tereza Barta, who left Romania in 1991, recalls that many families, regardless of income, hired private tutors, both to teach French and English, or to prep kids for entrance exams for university. “This was an entrenched mentality. You had to be well prepared,” she says.
Prof. Barta cites a Romanian joke about this outlook: “My neighbours got a new Mercedes and I got the latest edition of Shakespeare’s plays.”
Valentina Soltan, a settlement worker based at Forest Hill, also points out that the Romanian parents tend to be very receptive to advice from teachers. “They adapt faster and more easily than other [Eastern European] communities,” she says.
Language is a factor. Because Romanian is a romance language, French is commonly spoken as a second language; English is routinely taught in school. In the 1970s, before coming to Canada, Ms. Teodosiu recalls applying herself as a teen in French class to find out about the world. “If you wanted to get outside information, it was by getting your hands on a copy of Paris Match.”
The era of Communist censorship is long gone, but the attitudes toward second and third languages remain. Alex Lupu, for example, didn’t have to take English as a second language when he enrolled at Forest Hill: He’d studied English since kindergarten and picked up French and German along the way.
It’s important to keep in mind that while there’s been intense focus this week on the dropout rates among teens from immigrant communities, the 2006 TDSB cohort study makes it clear that neighbourhood income is also strongly linked to student success.
“Students in the lowest income grouping had a dropout rate of 33 per cent, three times that of students in the highest income grouping,” author Robert Brown notes. “Students in the lowest income group were less likely to have graduated by the end of Year 4 (57 per cent, compared to 84 per cent of students in the highest income grouping).”
Nevertheless, what’s clear from speaking with these Romanian parents is that the expectations for their children are very high. This attitude is not unique to Romanian immigrants, but performance is not left to chance. Both Ms. Dina and Ms. Teodosiu say they monitor their children’s homework and see that assignments are done thoroughly.
Ms. Teodosiu believes Canadian schools would do well to push all students harder and, at the elementary level, place more emphasis on learning basic skills in class rather than sending kids home with projects that often end up being completed by their parents.
Asked what she’d do if her son, new to Canada and eager to start a career in business, came home one day and announced he was leaving school, Ms. Lupu just shakes her head and smiles with quiet confidence. “He would never do that.”
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Some language groups fared better than others, in terms of dropout rates, in a study of records for students who started Grade 9 at Toronto public schools in 2000.
Language Number of students and the per cent who dropped out
Romanian 102 10.8%
Chinese 1,439 12.0%
Gujarati 105 14.3%
Bengali 132 16.7%
Tamil 599 16.9%
Greek 124 17.7%
Urdu 365 19.5%
Russian 368 19.6%
Korean 220 20.0%
English 9,668 22.9%
Vietnamese 236 24.6%
Arabic 126 27.8%
Persian (Farsi) 294 30.6%
Punjabi 185 34.6%
Somali 237 36.7%
Spanish 256 39.1%
Portuguese 134 42.5%
SOURCE: TORONTO DISTRICT SCHOOL BOARD