Donna Ford is among Canada's Outstanding Principals

Donna Ford is among Canada's Outstanding Principals

March 1, 2018

At a very young age, Donna Ford knew education was her calling.

Discussions on the subject dominated conversations around the dinner table and in the backyard in Ottawa where she was raised.

“As the daughter of Jamaican parents, that was the way it was,” recalled Ford. “So around age four, I was pretty clear that education was something I was going to spend most of my life involved in. For me, it’s a bastion in society. It holds a lot of institutional recognition and I really felt that in that structure, there would be some important avenues where I would not only be able to grow professionally, but I would be able to be of service. That was key for me.”

The principal at Roselawn Public School in Richmond Hill for the past 18 months, Ford is the only Black head teacher to make this year’s Canada Outstanding Principals (COP) Top 40 list.

In its 14th year, The Learning Partnership’s COP program recognizes the unique and vital contribution of principals in publicly funded schools. Nominated by parents, colleagues and community members and chosen by a national selection committee, Ford and her peers are being celebrated for demonstrating innovation, leadership and for employing creativity in finding solutions and opportunities in their school communities.

Opened in 1963, Roselawn – which has a student population of about 300 -- services grades four to 8.

Under Ford’s stellar leadership, the school enndeavours to increase critical thinking, independent problem solving and resiliency with its students.

Creating leadership opportunities for student participation is also vital for Ford and her committed team.

“It’s essential that I keep asking myself what can I do to shape, influence and contribute to the way in which education is thought about as a teacher in the classroom and now as a principal,” she said. “It really is around those conversations of looking at who are the kids that we have in front of us today, what’s important to them, what makes sense to them, who are they, what are their families like and in what ways are we going to be making some connections in this building to what’s happening in their family lives. There can’t be a dividing line if we are going to make a difference.”

With community agency supports, Roselawn explores ways to acknowledge and reduce anxiety and mental health issues for students, and families are invited to attend a monthly character and spirit assembly that recognizes students for the positive outcomes made in their learning behaviors.

Ford counts international education adviser Dr. Avis Glaze, who has a passion for character development, as a role model who played a huge role in inspiring her love for education.

They met for the first time over two decades ago when Glaze was a York Region District School Board (YRDSB) associate director of education.

“I was a teacher at the time and seeing a woman, a Black woman and one who is Jamaican in a formal leadership role was absolutely illuminating,” said Ford. “It confirmed that there are opportunities for Black teachers and female ones to aspire to different areas of service in education and to know that they could stretch the way in which they are contributing to the growth and development of students which, for me, is looking back to see what I have done to ensure that others who are so inspired feel as though they have a place and opportunity to contribute to society which is absolutely important.”

Ford also had another reason for admiring Glaze.

“Despite her commitments at her level of leadership, she was so very good in reaching back, visiting schools and looking to see how educators in the Black community were doing,” she noted. “I remember her approaching me one time at a meeting and asking how I was doing and how was I managing. She also wanted me to tell her about the work I was engaged in.”

Glaze, Ontario’s first chief student achievement officer and chief executive of the literacy and numeracy secretariat where she played a key role in improving student achievement in the province’s schools prior to becoming Ontario’s Education Commissioner and senior adviser to the Minister of Education, isn’t surprised by the level of excellence Ford has achieved.

“I was absolutely impressed with her resume and expertise,” she added. “I am sure that over the years, Donna’s students along with teachers and the community benefitted tremendously from the very different background experiences she brought to the education system from the larger world of work. I am delighted that she’s being recognized by The Learning Partnership because she’s an exceptional leader.”

The holder of an undergraduate degree from Carleton University, the YRDSB hired Ford just before she completed her Bachelor of Education certification at the University of Western Ontario.

She started her teaching career at a Markham school in 1987.

“I will never forget walking into the classroom that first day and seeing the cultural diversity,” Ford said. “I felt like I had received a gift to be teaching students who looked like me and for them to be seeing someone that looked like them providing some instruction in a safe place for them to learn and grow.”

Camille Logan, the YRDSB principal of inclusive school & community services, has worked with Ford in several capacities in the last 20 years.

“Most recently as a member of our equity strategy steering and action committee, she helped to develop what has now become our school board’s annual regional parent symposium,” Logan said. “Donna recognizes the significance and importance of working collaboratively and in partnership with our families and that when we work together, students achieve. As a result, our regional parent symposium continues to explore ways in which we can work more closely with our families and hear the voices, particularly of those less well served by our system, in order to identify and remove barriers. Accessing the voices of the families in our communities helps us to learn more about their children in order to successfully support the achievement, mental health and well-being of our students.”

YRDSB senior administrator Cecil Roach said Ford is an amazing leader.

“Donna understands the need to work with staff, students and families to create a school where everyone feels welcomed, accepted and included,” said the board’s co-ordinating superintendent of education, equity & community services. “She’s committed to the core business of student achievement and well-being and she does this from a leadership stance that sees equity as an important leadership competency.”

Roach worked with Ford on the board’s recently completed community consultation on anti-Black racism.

“She was not only hard working, but she embodied a stoic but resolute commitment to hearing community voices and concerns,” he added.

A principal for the past 18 years, Ford also has a Master’s in journalism from Temple University and was seconded to York University as a course director for three years.

While acknowledging the role that students, teachers and mentors have played in helping her to become an award-winning principal in Canada’s public education system, she dedicated the honour to her mother – Winifred Tomlinson – who passed away in 2007.

“She was unrelenting in her confirmation of my abilities and she provided me with the motto, ‘If you conceive it and you believe it, you will achieve it’.

Each year, the COP winners become members of a National Academy of Principals. Throughout the year, they to act as champions of the program and participate in ongoing discussions about leadership issues through an online forum They are also involved in mentoring colleagues in their home schools and actively collaborating in developing and communicating about issues important to publicly funded education with research support from The Learning Partnership.

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