‘I have navigated inequities’: PDSB’s new leader talks about moving toward equity and inclusion
“Third time's a charm.”
Those with ties to the Peel District School Board hope the expression comes true.
There’s no way around it; the past two years have been a disaster for the PDSB. Former director of education Peter Joshua, was fired for failing to hold accountable board leaders including a number of trustees who allowed a poisonous culture of systemic racism to flourish, with his help.
Anti-Black racism has been a main focus, as evidence emerged of systemic harm that has been done to students for decades.
Two searing reports done for the ministry of education found damning evidence that the board’s leaders lacked the “capacity and perhaps even more importantly the will,” to address the ongoing equity crisis in Peel’s largest school board.
After admitting an inability to eradicate systemic discrimination within the board, trustees asked the Province for help. Supervisor Bruce Rodrigues was brought in to make sure the 27 provincial directives being sidelined by some trustees would be completed.
Colleen Russell-Rawlins was hired to implement the directives and turn the board around. Then, unexpectedly, she announced early this summer she would be leaving to head Toronto’s public board.
It was a gut punch to all those desperate to see PDSB move on from its troubled past.
The director’s job was handed to Rashmi Swarup.
With three education directors leading PDSB in just over a year, critical equity work to transform the board has not moved smoothly, leaving many community advocates and families worried the board may never overcome some of its issues.
The elected board of trustees is fractured by dysfunctional relationships between many members with some holding backward views on how racism should be dealt with. Recently, 9 of the 12 trustees wrote to the Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, to demand the removal of Rodrigues, whose supervisor role strips the elected officials of their governance authority.
The letter was simple: Rodrigues has overstayed his welcome, and many members want to go back to the governing table without his direct oversight. However, the first directive issued by the ministry states all trustees must demonstrate they can work together to provide good governance of the board. With three trustees refusing to sign the letter and speaking out against the removal of Rodrigues, the ministry said this proves the divide still exists and stated the request to remove him has been rejected.
He will remain until the 27 binding directives handed down by the education ministry are properly implemented.
At the beginning of August, Swarup was appointed as the PDSB’s new director of education, the third person to hold the title in the past 14 months. She brings a wealth of experience in various educational roles and recognizes the need to bring meaningful change to a struggling board.
The Pointer spoke with Swarup after her first full week in the new role about her plans to move the needle forward on the 27 directives from the ministry.
There is a lot of pressure from advocates, families and community stakeholders for the new director to finally make transformational changes inside the PDSB. (The Pointer files)
“I think back to my career, it’s always been about an unwavering commitment to equity, inclusion, and to dismantle racism and other forms of oppression. How am I going to do it? It's all about relationships,” Swarup says.
Coming from TVO as their vice president of digital learning and education partnerships, Swarup also brings 15 years experience at the York Region District School Board in various leadership positions, including Superintendent of Education. Prior, she was with the Toronto District School Board as a secondary school teacher and curriculum lead.
During her time at YRDSB, a provincial review was conducted finding many problems around its governance, specifically with its record on equity and inclusion—a similar tale to PDSB. The province went in and presented a report using widespread input from staff and community members, revealing fractured leadership and misuse of travel expenses, along with issues around systemic discrimination.
“We wish to underscore our concerns that the capacity is lacking not only with respect to proper governance but equally, if not more importantly, with their understanding of, and responsibility for equity,” the 2017 report on the York board stated.
Like PDSB, the report gave directives and guidance to implement fairer policies and maintain a better governance structure. The members of the board also did equity and diversity training and started repairing relationships with visible minority communities.
Swarup at the time was a member of the leadership team implementing the ministry directives in York. Having been through a process of rebuilding trust and relationships with staff and members of the community before, it gives Swarup the unique insight and knowledge of how to approach difficult conversations and achieve the goals of the provincial directives.
“Listening to their voices is very, very important to me,” Swarup says, “but then when you listen, what do you bring back? And how do you kind of connect the dots to figure out what is the next step?”
For her, the next step will not come overnight. It’s a process of listening to everyone and assessing if the next move is making an impact, or if a new step is required. Monitoring for changes in attitudes and ensuring the lived experiences of stakeholders are being listened to will give her insight into the policies that need to be introduced in order to improve the future for all students, she says.
Being a leader in equity comes from Swarup’s own personal experiences, as she’s able to relate to many students within the PDSB.
“When I look at my own identity, I’m a South Asian, racialized, immigrant woman, my second language is English. So in my lived experiences, I have navigated inequities,” she says, proudly.
While many live with different forms of microaggressions, and stereotypes, Swarup notes her experiences are unique to her and are different from others, but the end goal is the same: closing the gap to create equity for everyone. She wants to make sure initiatives don’t “reside on paper,” but that the board develops on-the-ground policies to positively impact the students in the schools.
Swarup’s hands-on approach, connecting with students, staff, community members and trustees, is how she plans on bringing change to the board.
“When you have your ear to the ground, and you listen to people, and you kind of connect—who are the students who are not being successful, and you’re proactive and work with your administrators in a team, you make a difference,” she tells The Pointer.
When asked if she will stay with PDSB for the foreseeable future, to ensure the job is completed, Swarup did not answer directly.
“I live in this community and I am now working here, and for me, I'm committed to students, staff, and families here. So that is my commitment,” she said.
PDSB's public chamber inside its head office has been the destination for many local advocates. (The Pointer file photos)
Being immersed in the Peel community and with an intimate understanding of the complex factors around the region’s diversity, is an important part of helping fix the fractured board. On July 16, 2020 Rodrigues announced that Russell-Rawlins, a long-time senior leader with the TDSB, would take over Peel’s largest board to turn it around. She was supposed to be in place until at least 2022, when trustees face an election. Merely a year later, she left to go back to the TDSB, leaving Peel without a strong equity leader to navigate the choppy waters. Many trustees have made clear they have little interest in true equity and inclusion measures, and have defended the status quo for years.
The brutal reality was summed up in a report the ministry had to initiate through a third-party review into the board last year, after trustees and other senior leaders demonstrated a strictly performative adherence to the 27 provincial directives, while clearly rejecting even basic measures to ensure equity and inclusion, and the protection of students.
“I have determined that the collective Board and the Director’s Office is lacking both the ability and capacity, and perhaps even more importantly, the will, to address the findings in the Report, and therefore future non-compliance with the Minister’s binding Directions is probable,” the review’s author wrote.
It led to Joshua’s firing and the takeover of governance by Rodrigues, as the ministry flexed its muscle, making clear that further harm to visible minority students would not be tolerated.
As community advocates have had to process the bumps in the road, skepticism over the entire situation has grown.
“What the Ministry could be looking at, and what they could be looking for, may be different to what the community wants,” Idris Orughu, a community leader, told The Pointer in June, when Russell-Rawlins was brought from Toronto. “Is it possible for a non-Peel resident to come and fix it? How invested would they be?”
As much as advocates are thankful for the work Russell-Rawlins achieved over a year, they know a lot more is yet to be done. The second leadership change brings cautious optimism among some championing change. Kathy McDonald, the PDSB trustee who has carried much of the load on the equity and inclusion file for years, is very pleased with the new director of education.
“Our new director gives me such hope in continuing the torch, it's not like we have to start again,” McDonald says. “I really believe that this new director is committed to making our board more inclusive and more equitable for all students.”
Speaking about Swarup’s extensive education past, McDonald offers hope that things will finally start to change for the better under her leadership.
“I think it's important to have someone who is committed to ensuring that the directives are followed and I get that sense from her. I'm really confident that things will change.”
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