New director at PDSB and promises from the province offer chance to start again
Across Ontario, parents are worrying about what their children’s school experience will be like in September. Through mainstream and social media, mothers and fathers have raised countless concerns.
Will children be safe? Will they get the academic attention they need? Will the pandemic let talented youngsters fall through the cracks? Will those learning online have an advantage or a disadvantage?
A march this spring was in protest against PDSB's history of discrimination
For many parents whose children identify as Black and/or Muslim in the Region of Peel, those questions are not new. For decades, Black parents, in particular, have seen their children failed by the Peel District School Board.
Recent action by the provincial government, built on the back of relentless activism by Peel parents, has offered some hope. Even as the rest of the world’s education system is thrown into total chaos by COVID-19, Black parents in Peel can finally see a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel.
Last year the province launched a sweeping probe into allegations of widespread racism and discrimination in the board. The findings, released in March, confirmed what many Black parents had known for decades, but the evidence of blatant mistreatment of visible minority students, particularly those who are Black, was harrowing, prompting the board to apologize for the “harm” it continued to do to Black students.
In June, Education Minister Stephen Lecce sent former deputy minister of education Bruce Rodrigues to PDSB as a supervisor tasked with creating transformational change. Rodrigues took the vast majority of decision making power away from a dysfunctional board of trustees and promptly dismissed controversial former director of education Peter Joshua, who was seen by many advocates as a symptom of the wider issue of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism in the province’s second largest school system.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce promises to continue decisive action in Peel
A couple of months later, at the beginning of August, Colleen Russell-Rawlins began working as "permanent" Interim Director of Education. The appointment of a Black woman to the role signalled that change was set to continue.
The issues of anti-Black racism and discimination at PDSB are systemic, something the board itself admitted in its apology issued in April. Advocates and parents called for the resignation of Joshua for months, but few saw him as the only problem. “Excited as [we] are – it’s not over,” parent and advocate Idris Orughu told The Pointer in June when Joshua was dismissed.
His dismissal marked the beginning of a long road to recovery and equity in Peel.
Speaking to local media in Mississauga at the end of July, Minister Lecce said he planned to keep Rodrigues in charge for quite some time. “I think he’ll be in place for at least the next year,” he said, responding to a question from The Pointer. “We need to have a plan in place to stabilize the board, reorient them, provide some governance changes and really create a short and long-term plan to change the culture of the board, to better train the staff, to ultimately improve the delivery of education to that community.”
The comments made clear that the job was just beginning.
In July, Lecce announced province-wide changes mirroring those created by the ministry to transform PDSB. At the start of July, it was announced that streaming (sorting children into ‘gifted’ and ‘applied’ classes based on perceived ability) would end for Grade 9 by September 2021.
The review of PDSB illustrated just how harmful streaming was for Black students. Despite making up roughly 10 percent of Peel’s student body, Black students were underrepresented in gifted streams destined for university and dramatically overrepresented in courses with lower academic expectations, which limit future opportunities. Data from the 2018-19 academic year in Peel bares the facts.
That year, Black students made up 21.7 percent of those in applied, less academic, streams, more than twice their representation among the student body as a whole. They also accounted for 25.4 percent of locally developed credit courses, classes generally considered to be academically even below applied and aimed at teaching life skills.
Also drawing on the ministry’s investigation of PDSB, the province announced suspensions in younger years would be thrown out, another practice shown to severely hamper Black and other visible minority students.
“I think we need to take immediate action to bring reform now, but also to continuously improve over time,” Lecce told The Pointer in an interview last week, emphasizing his intention to keep forcing change. Over time, the moves are aimed at levelling a playing field that has been tilted for decades. “When it comes to dealing with anti-discimination and with anti-racism, this cannot be an event and it has to be a journey of continued improvement, forcing systems to change their culture, change their behaviour and provide a more inclusive lens.”
The plan to end streaming in Grade 9 math is an example of rapid action with potential to change student educational outcomes significantly in the future. The province’s current plan means streaming will be delayed until Grade 10, not dropped altogether.
It won’t be easy, as many teachers and even principals in the board hold deep biases against the very students they are supposed to help develop. Almost 84 percent of students in PDSB are not white while about 70 percent of educators and administrators are. The disconnect and entrenched prejudice among many was illustrated in a shocking event recently.
Central Peel Secondary School in Brampton dealt with a toxic situation after Principal Julie DeMaeyer made a “xenophobic and racist” comment during a staff meeting in May, weeks after the province had outlined requirements to destream.
Numerous sources told The Pointer she had said in front of teachers and other staff that destreaming would lead to students being allowed to take science classes where they would learn how to make bombs. The school is home to a large student body who identify as Muslim and DeMaeyer admitted her hurtful words were “an unconscious example [of bias]”. She was suspended by the board after the remarks came to light.
“I want to talk to the community about the recommendation on [ending streaming totally]. Right now, my commitment is to de-stream Grade 9,” Lecce said. “I want to speak with leaders in the racialized communities to understand their perspective about going beyond Grade 9. That conversation is open and will be informed by the perspectives of families and parents… I am very open to it, but I want to have that discussion with the community before I decide. As Minister, that’s important. I want them to lead that process.”
Colleen Russell-Rawlins, PDSB's new Interim Director of Education, is tasked with creating real change
The danger of ongoing consultations and the argument against the process is shown in reams of data that already exist. From the provincial probe into PDSB to various academic studies, there is plenty of evidence that streaming disadvantages racialized students and plays into internal biases. More consultations could lead to delays instead of progress.
“This can’t be a royal commission that takes a decade to come to a result, we need to listen meaningfully, consult meaningfully, then act decisively,” Lecce said.
Interim Director Russell-Rawlins, brought in with a mandate to finally bring change, told The Pointer she wants to make sure PDSB delivers on the directives issued by the province to mend its relationship with the communities it serves. “It’s my goal that those changes have a positive, long-lasting impact on our students’ education and that it really shifts the culture of the workplace,” she told The Pointer Friday.
Between the beginning of the provincial review into PDSB in November, its results in March and the eventual appointment of a supervisor in June, a myriad of issues were raised. Chief among them was a total breakdown in communication between parents, community leaders, trustees and officials.
Asked what steps she would take to solve this central issue, Russell-Rawlins (three days into her new job) was vague. “I am certainly interested in talking to community members about how we create those multiple opportunities for conversations in different places,” she said, adding the need for various forums so parents can express their concerns.
In many Peel circles, the actions of Lecce and the provincial government have been praised. Relatively quick and decisive action to eradicate a racist culture has not gone unnoticed.
Equally, the problems at PDSB were impossible to ignore. Tireless work by parents and advocates forced them up the agenda. Trustee Kathy McDonald, in particular, made it her life’s work to blow the whistle on what was going on. Without the pressure of McDonald and parent advocates in Mississauga and Brampton, it is unlikely Lecce would have been forced to act so swiftly.
As the glow of their first victory fades, advocates will turn their attention back to the Minister to continue to apply pressure. Lecce has shown himself willing to make changes aimed at bringing equality to education, but advocates say they will keep pushing.
The train towards an equitable school system in Peel is trundling slowly through its dark tunnel. But it remains miles from the light that marks its destination.
With a new leader in place, a provincially-appointed supervisor to enact Queen’s Park’s mandate for change and Lecce committed to seeing the job through, parents and students who have been harmed for decades will wait to see if decisive action is taken.
“I am the type of person that will drive change: I’ll be aggressive and bold,” Lecce promised.
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