York school board releases its strategy to combat anti-Black racism and end a culture of low expectations and ‘throwaway kids’

Will be interesting to assess the impact on student outcomes in a number of years and what measures were particularly effective:

It’s the stories. It’s the stories that sit within, and heave out come time to seek justice, that make a difference. 

Stories that have been discounted for centuries, but have become unignorable since decades of data — statistical, academic and visual — have rapidly piled up. Today only the most wilfully ignorant would deny the existence of deeply rooted anti-Black racism — itself a term coined by Ryerson social work professor Akua Benjamin.

It’s those stories, the experiences of Black families in the school system, that sit at the root of a report by the York Region District School Board (YRDSB) being released Monday.

The two-part Dismantling Anti-Black Racism Strategy is a five-year strategic plan built in collaboration with staff, parents, trustees, community organization and students. In all, about 800 people contributed to the creation of the strategy, which the YRDSB calls the first of its kind by a Canadian school board.

While many boards have equity plans and activities on anti-Black racism,“the power of this (strategy) is making sure there’s some coherence to those activities,” said Tana Turner, an adjunct professor in the faculty of education at York University, who authored it. It builds on the board’s existing equity plans and spells out priorities, action items and an accountability framework.

That last point is urgent. It is also where community skepticism resides. It’s easy for leaders to sign on to anti-racist ideas. The racist barriers are usually erected when it comes to carrying them out. No surprise, then, that everyone who was involved in the creation of this report cited bold leadership as the No. 1 step to accountability. 

“The leadership has to be truly on board, understand what’s at stake and has to lead by example,” said Claudette Rutherford, a parent and teacher at the board. “Are you championing for racial justice when nobody is looking?” 

Two years ago, Rutherford put out an email to parents of Black children, saying, “If you’re worried about your kids in this system, let’s talk.” It was an emotional meeting. They had their own stories, they heard others’.

A desire to take the discussions beyond venting led to her co-founding Parents of Black Children (PoBC) with Charline Grant and Kearie Daniel, both known firebrands. They found strong, talented teachers — Black and non-Black — who said they were too afraid to put their names as board members, that they worried about the repercussions for their careers. 

“I understand it, no judgment,” Rutherford said. But it made the co-founders wonder: “Who is going to put themselves on the line for our children? Nobody but the mothers, right? It sits deep within me.” 

Turner said this lack of safety for anti-racist teachers is true across school boards. In her decades of doing equity and census audits in Ontario school boards and public sector organizations, she found, “In a lot of these boards, it’s safer to be racist than to be anti-racist. You can lose your job for sticking up for Black children.”

In school, teachers are the most important contributors to student achievement. But what to do if they themselves are biased or racially illiterate? When studies show they are more likely to read Black faces as angry even when they’re not, Black boys’ misbehaviours as more hostile than those of white boys, Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers? 

Parents echoed what has been said in other boards. “Teachers look through Black students,” is one quote in the report. They said their children were seen as “throwaway kids” not worthy of being taught. 

When one of Rutherford’s children had applied for an academic course, she received an email from staff at the new school (who had never met him) saying they were worried he couldn’t manage. “I had to get his white principal to write a note on my behalf.”

Consultants heard Black children were called the N-word as early as in Grade 1, or slaves by classmates because their teachers had singularly focused on slavery during Black History Month while ignoring contributions of Black Canadians. 

Equally troublesome was that teachers and principals often treated these situations as interpersonal conflicts, holding both children culpable if the Black child responded verbally or physically. 

This is why one of the action plans is for the board to increase the racial literacy of all staff and students, create a protocol to help them identify racist and other inappropriate acts, and guide them with steps that students, parents and staff can take to have them addressed. “We need to equip teachers and make a difference in those classrooms,” Turner said. 

The Parents of Black Children group is separately collecting these experiences from staff, which Rutherford says will be analyzed by a volunteer researcher. 

At the board, a major part of the accountability process is bringing community eyes on the process, with plans to give the steering committee regular updates on how the strategy is being implemented. Strategies are to be adjusted based on their feedback and response to data being collected.

“What was excellent about this whole process is you had various Black community members and organizations working together, speaking about the problems and wanting to be part of the solution, to be part of the change,” said Elizabeth Turner, York school board trustee and one of the 22 working-group members who helped develop the strategy.

“This framework is designed to hold the YRDSB accountable not only for implementing the actions … but also for creating better outcomes for Black students,” the report says.

These include better academic outcomes and greater well-being of Black students in learning environments that not only protect them from the trauma of anti-Black racism but also affirm their identities. 

“The issue of Black underachievement is the most pervasive and unacknowledged in the education system,” said Cecil Roach, a superintendent of equity at the board. “You can’t have 50 years of Black kids not graduating at the same level as everyone else.”

The trouble is how to convince the naysayers? Naysayers are often not people who say anti-Black racism doesn’t exist. They’re ones who look at the disparities of student outcomes and blame Black students and their families for it. Up to a point, this can be blamed on racial illiteracy. Beyond that it’s about racist attitudes towards Black people. 

“If you don’t understand the system, you’re blaming the marginalized people for their marginalization,” Turner said. “These teachers haven’t been taught. They don’t know.”

Roach, too, insists on optimism on that score. “Teachers want to do well by kids as long as we give the proper intervention.”

Not that he has a choice. Other than hoping interventions move people to see the light, what hope of change can anyone have? 

Consultations with the York school community showed that even cheerful events can deepen Black students’ isolation. On Crazy Hair Day, for instance, “It’s white kids putting their hair in braids, using baubles Black kids put in their hair … and you’re calling them crazy?” Turner said. Or the only Black kid in class gets left out on Twin Day.

In addition there is the well-known fact of criminalization of children, the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. “For many students, school discipline can lead to their first contact with the criminal justice system,” the report reads. Kids who drop out are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than a youth who has graduated from high school. 

Rutherford remembers once receiving sensitive information about a Black family going through a transition after the father lost his job. Another educator heard the same story and called in Children’s Aid. Why?

Rutherford sees other supports that could have been put in place. Maybe the school could have called the father and offered to get housing. “What is it about Black families that makes you want to penalize rather than support?” she asked. 

If he had to choose just one outcome, Roach would want to see Black graduation rates shoot up. “I want to see Black kids at age 16 have 16 credits.” But that’s not a goal that can operate in isolation, he said. 

“We already know what to do. The question is do we want to do it? It’s one thing to accept the disparity is there. It’s another thing to care about it.”

It’s a given that supporting the most marginalized students supports all students. 

“Ultimately we want an education where our kids flourish,” Rutherford said. “We want our children to feel nurtured and welcome and deserving of safe educational spaces. We don’t want more than what other parents want. Our children deserve that.”

Source: https://www.thestar.com/opinion/star-columnists/2021/03/08/york-school-board-releases-its-strategy-to-combat-anti-black-racism-and-end-a-culture-of-low-expectations-and-throwaway-kids.html

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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