Winnipeg school’s bilingual program working to meet needs of students arriving from Ukraine

It’s a Friday morning and a group of Grade 4-5 students at R.F. Morrison School in Winnipeg’s Seven Oaks School Division are quietly sitting at their desks, writing.

The students are working on letters of support that will be sent thousands of kilometres away to people working on the front lines of the war in Ukraine — whether they be soldiers, nurses or doctors.

It’s an assignment planned by their teacher to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of Russia’s attack on Ukraine last February. 

“[I] wrote I love Ukraine and I respect Ukraine,” said Veronika Molchanova, 11, who is from Ukraine and arrived in Winnipeg with her parents last September.

Veronika’s class is one of seven in the English-Ukrainian bilingual program at the elementary school, located in north Winnipeg’s Garden City area. She’s one of nine students in her class of 23 who have arrived in Manitoba from Ukraine in the last year.

While the bilingual program isn’t new, the school’s principal said this year is unlike any other he’s experienced. 

“September is always a busy time in schools,” said Andrew Volk, who in his fifth year at R.F. Morrison, but “no school or program is kind of built to grow at 60 per cent in a month or two.”

Four children, one of whom wears a Ukrainian flag draped over her shoulders, sit at a round table in a classroom, smiling for the camera.
Along with Veronika, left, Olya Protasevych, Mariia Muzychko and Maksym Yerkoe are also students in R.F. Morrison’s English-Ukrainian bilingual program. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Volk said he knew the school would see an increase in the number of students enrolled in its English-Ukrainian program this school year, but didn’t know exactly what to expect. 

At the end of August, there were about 30 students who had recently arrived from Ukraine registered at the school. By the end of November that number increased to more than 60, he said. 

Throughout his time at the school, there have typically been around 100 students in the program, but this year that number is over 160, he said.   

The province said as of last week, more than 17,200 Ukrainians have presented to Manitoba’s reception and welcoming centre since the start of the war and about 13,200 provincial health cards have been issued.

More than 1,300 kindergarten to Grade 12 students from Ukraine were registered in Manitoba’s school system as of Dec. 1, 2022, according to a provincial spokesperson.

‘They miss their families’: teacher

Zoya Kostetsky moved from Ukraine to Canada in 2005 and went through a Ukrainian-English bilingual program growing up. Now she’s teaching the Grade 4-5 class at R.F. Morrison. 

It’s been rewarding to know the students have a community at the school where they can connect with others, she said.

The students know that “they have someone they can talk to and relate with culturally, and with the war going on understand to a certain degree what they are going through,” said Kostetsky.

Still, there are challenges — for example, some of the students are dealing with the trauma that comes with experiencing war. 

“I know when we’ve had fire drills and things like that, that was a little bit triggering for some of the students at first,” Kostetsky said. 

“But once we had explained and talked about it as a class they kind of understood we’re safe — this is for a drill, it’s for a fire, it’s not for bombs.”

A young girl sits writing at a desk in a classroom.
Olya Protasevych, 9, writes a letter of support to people working on the front line of the war in Ukraine. (Alana Cole/CBC)

She said while she knows some of the new students are enjoying Manitoba, many want to go back to Ukraine. 

“They miss their families,” she said. “I know some of them miss their pets.… One of my students always talks about missing their dog that they left behind in Ukraine.” 

Kostetsky said she tries to support the students by being a person they can come to if they need to talk, and “having an open line of communication and being really sympathetic to what’s going on in their lives.

Program expanded

Volk said R.F. Morrison has expanded the bilingual program, adding one class and more support staff since the start of the school year. At the end of November, they ran out of space and could no longer accept new students into the program. 

“Up until November, all of our teachers in the bilingual program had … anywhere from one to maybe three or four kids a week coming in new,” said Volk. 

There are 11 Manitoba schools offering the Ukrainian-English bilingual program in Manitoba.

Volk said staff at his school have been learning about trauma-informed practices and teaching English as an additional language as part of “doing the work to meet the needs of kids who are in a difficult situation.”

A man wearing a blazer and a T-shirt with a blue and yellow peace symbol sits in an office, smiling at the camera.
Andrew Volk is the principal of R.F. Morrison School, which is one of 11 Manitoba schools to offer the English-Ukrainian bilingual program. (Alana Cole/CBC)

Sitting next to Kostetsky, who translates questions from English into Ukrainian, student Olya Protasevych said moving to a new city was a little scary, but OK overall. 

The nine-year-old arrived in Winnipeg last fall with her mom and sister. 

Asked if she thinks starting at a school that offers an English-Ukrainian bilingual program helped, Olya answered in Ukrainian, with Kostetsky translating.

“It’s been good because we can learn English but also we have teachers who can translate for us if we don’t understand something,” she said.

Asked what she put in her letter to font-line workers, Kostetsky once again translated Olya’s answer. 

“She said that she studies at an English-Ukrainian school in Canada and that she’s a student, and she really wants Ukraine to win the war.”

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