Schools and school boards are struggling to respond to racism – and continue to fail to dismantle systemic barriers that affect Indigenous, Black and racialized students and families.
These barriers affect not only student learning, but also the well-being and sense of belonging of students, family, and staff.
Amid debates over the effectiveness of school boards, some provinces in Canada have abolished or changed public governance structures overseeing school boards, or are considering doing so: for example, Quebec abolished school boards in 2020 and Nova Scotia abolished the councils in 2018. In April, the New Brunswick government Minister of Education championed plans to eliminate the current district education councils and replace them with a provincial council and regional councils.
But school boards matter if they are places where parents and community members can engage in democratic discussion and decision-making and respond to the needs of communities that have historically been excluded from public education. .
In Ontario, for a number of years, several school boards have been under review by the Ontario Ministry of Education to address governance and racial injustice challenges.
School boards have faced demands for increased transparency and accountability.
Parents or community groups are mobilizing against anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, anti-Asian racism and other forms of racism against students, families and educators.
We’ve also noticed an increase in the number of white and middle-class families, school trustees, and media personalities resisting or criticizing anti-racism efforts.
Anti-racism research has not had a significant impact
With our colleague Joseph Flessa, we synthesized and reviewed research on school board reform. We found that while there is substantial research on anti-racism education in Ontario, it has not had a significant impact on policy and practice in Ontario districts over the past two decades. .
We also interviewed 12 superintendents of education in five Ontario public school districts who engage in anti-racism leadership. These leaders were black, South Asian and white. Some held stock portfolios and some were responsible for school families.
Read more: Charlottesville: White educators must fight everyday racism
Additionally, one of the authors of this article, Vidya, along with our colleague Diana Grimaldos, interviewed 13 parents (11 Black, one South Asian, and one Latinx) who are fighting for racial justice in their schools, boards, and the community at large.
Based on these different studies, we have proposed five approaches to change. These approaches position school boards as places where intergenerational and collective transformation can occur through shared struggle and where critical democracy can be achieved.
1. Disputed neutrality
Our research shows that school districts need to recognize that no aspect of schooling is neutral.
How people understand and experience learning, mental health and wellbeing, success and failure, leadership, curriculum, student voice, and parent and community engagement. community are all influenced by social identities and positionality.
When school boards assume that there is a standard that everyone should live up to, they reinforce a status quo that serves the interests and needs of those with the greatest social power.
School boards should consider how students, families, and staff are racialized across every curriculum structure, policy, approach, and practice — and how racism continues to operate even as they aim to disrupt it.
2. Accountability structures
Our study leaders highlighted the importance for school boards to collect demographic data based on indigeneity, race, socioeconomic status, sexual and gender diversity spectrum, place of birth, disability and more.
Boards could then disaggregate data on student achievement and engagement, school processes, and student and staff experience and well-being to identify student gaps in opportunities that affect achievement.
This data can help boards understand and dismantle structures in schools that disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous, and specific groups of racialized students, students marginalized by poverty, and students with disabilities.
Read more: How adversity affects disproportionate suspensions of Black and Indigenous students
Councils can also create structures that reverse harmful patterns and pathways and ensure that new approaches are adequately funded and supported.
Community leaders should be meaningfully involved at every step, and data should be shared publicly and regularly.
Leaders we interviewed called on school boards to create structures to hold both the system and educators accountable.
Accountability structures include independent advisory boards with representation from historically excluded communities and impact on educators who fail to respect the rights and dignity of students and families. School boards must demonstrate a clear commitment to using a rights-based approach to making decisions and responding to situations.
3. Rethink parent and community engagement
Our research also examined the prejudice experienced by Black and racialized parents who challenged racist educators, policies and practices in school contexts where educators express concern about the experiences of excluded families and respond to demands for change.
School leaders need to ensure that they consider parents’ experiences and recognize families’ expertise in school board decisions. They will also need to develop structures with accountability measures to prevent continued damage.
They must find concrete ways to value and support parental activism for racial justice and other forms of social justice, and affirm that this work is fundamental to parental engagement.
School boards must help leaders develop the capacity to respond to families and communities who benefit from the status quo and to advocate against anti-racism reforms. They can do this by resolutely committing to changing practices that privilege already privileged groups.
4. Anti-racist leadership
Leadership is essential to transforming schools and boards. Leadership models that do not value anti-racist, anti-colonial and anti-oppressive skills, knowledge and abilities reproduce various forms of oppression.
We need to help leaders undo and unlearn the ways they have been socialized to leadership. The UnLeading project launched at York University is a website and a series of podcasts that have this goal.
Leaders we interviewed emphasized the need for a fundamental shift in the criteria for hiring, developing, and promoting aspiring and established school administrators or leaders. Change must center on anti-racist and anti-oppressive skills and capacities.
5. Recognize the boundaries of the school board
Our research shows that there are limits to what school boards can do on their own, in part because they operate within larger inequitable structures. Schools and school boards need partnerships with communities, universities, nonprofits, journalists, and most importantly, with students, families, and staff.
School boards need to realize that marginalized communities are fed up with performative acts and structural inaction.
They must acknowledge the stories of exclusion of historically oppressed communities from educational institutions and schools, as well as their role in promoting colonialism and white supremacy.
These are the reasons why, in dialogue with communities, some school boards support the development of alternative learning spaces in school boards and beyond. For example, the Toronto District School Board’s Urban Aboriginal Education Center “infuses Aboriginal perspectives throughout the curriculum” and “provides direct complementary supports to improve the overall success of First Nations students.” Nations, Métis and Inuit throughout the TDSB”.
We envision that by considering these approaches, boards may invest less energy in maintaining images of perfection, innocence, security and control, and instead welcome criticism and acknowledge failures. past and present. Perhaps they come to view generative conflict as an opportunity for transformation.