Eight-year-old Sirvat Labiba emigrated with her family from Bangladesh to Ontario, Canada when she was 3. She lives in the Crescent Town neighborhood of Toronto with her mother, father, and little sister in a high-rise apartment tower.
“Most of them are pretty dirty,” she said. “They built it a really long time ago. So it’s, like, really old.”
But even if the housing isn’t ideal, Sirvat is thrilled to live in Ontario.
“It’s a better community, because in Bangladesh when people get sick, it’s really hard for them to get better. And so this is, like, a better community for children to learn,” she said.
But the academic success of students like Sirvat is one of the things that makes Ontario stand out internationally. The system, which serves a large minority population and embraces multiculturalism, has been heralded worldwide.
Educators in the United States tend to take international comparisons of public school systems with a big grain of salt.
Many of the other countries that rank high on international tests – such as Finland, Singapore, and South Korea – serve such homogeneous populations that it can be challenging to make fair and useful comparisons.
Overall, though, Ontario and Pennsylvania are comparable in the proportion of minority students they serve. In Pennsylvania, minorities make up about 32 percent of the public school population. In Ontario, it’s 20 percent.
In Toronto, though, diversity levels are off the charts. A whopping two-thirds of students in the Toronto District School Board are from immigrant families in which both parents were born outside Canada.
“Being Canadian, you know, a big part of that, is, well, ‘You’re Canadian, but where did you come from?’” said principal Harpreet Ghuman, with a laugh. “And I love that about our system and our city and our country.”
Ghuman leads Crescent Town Elementary, Sirvat's school, where most families live in the surrounding high-rises and earn less than $30,000 per year.