Education of Black students widely discussed at ONABSE conference

Education of Black students widely discussed at ONABSE conference

May 12, 2019

Kathy and Lester McDonald thought they had many things in common when they met at McGill University in the 1980s.

That was until they started talking about their high school experiences which were quite different.

“Growing up in Jamaica, I was told I could be anything I wanted to be,” said McDonald who graduated from Immaculate Conception High School whose alumnae include former Ontario Minister Mary Anne Chambers and philanthropist Donette Chin-Loy Chang. “On the other hand, he and most his Black friends were told they were not university material and they didn’t belong there. I was floored when he talked about the name calling, like ‘Jungle Bunny’ and ‘Monkey’ that they had to endure”.

Married 25 years ago, the couple’s first child – University of Toronto third-year Life Sciences student Benjamin McDonald – had similar experiences.

“This is a smart kid who works hard and is so disciplined, yet he was targetted,” said his mom. “I realized this was the reality for many Black students and I had to tackle it”

For the last 18 years, McDonald has been actively involved with the Peel District School Board (PDSB) which, in October 2016, released a report, ‘We Rise Together’ in response to two reports rolled out the previous year which noted that Black males feel marginalized, ignored and isolated.

In its action plan to support Black male students, the Board identified engaging with the community, delivering anti-racism & bias awareness professional development, integrating the experiences of Black Canadians into the curriculum and inspiring Black student leadership & engagement as priorities.

By an 11-3 vote, the PDSB recently approved a motion instigated by McDonald to hire more Black and Indigenous teachers. 

With pupils from those groups underperforming academically compared to students of other racial sectors, she said targeted hiring is required to address the problem.

“This motion is not about hiring practices,” said McDonald who was honoured with a Champion Educator Award of Excellence at the fifth annual Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators (ONABSE) two-day conference in Toronto last month. “It is about student outcomes. This is about addressing a particular group who are not graduating as their peers are.”

Jamie Robertson, the PDSB Human Resources Superintendent, is responsible for rolling out the program that’s not fully developed.

“It is important for people to realize that even though the motion was passed, there’s still a lot of work to be done,” noted McDonald.

Frustrated with the public school system in Peel, she and her Trinidad & Tobago-born husband were planning to homeschool their eldest child when he received a full scholarship in 2012 with the help of the African Canadian Christian Network (ACCN) to attend Upper Canada College where he launched a Black History Club.

McDonald came to Canada at six months old with her parents who lived in Northern Quebec for two-years where her father – a senior Alcan executive – was assigned. The family returned to Jamaica at the end of his contract.

McDonald completed a Bachelor of Science degree at McGill University and a post-graduate diploma in the Theory of Teaching Practices at the University of Guelph where she was a research assistant.

“I always wanted to work with kids and I was thinking about becoming a paediatrician, but I just couldn’t deal with the emotional piece of seeing children suffering and dying,” the Brampton Wards 3 & 4 trustee since 2014 pointed out. “That was too much for me and I made the decision to start volunteering in my community.”

The former Carabram Caribbean Carnival Chair co-ordinates a youth steelband that includes her children, regale young people with Jamaican folk tales, serves on the Congress of Black Women Brampton chapter and the United Achievers Club of Brampton boards.

As a School Council Chair at Agnes Taylor Public School and Sir William Gage Middle School, McDonald helped parents organize events, became involved in their children’s education and supports school initiatives. In the role of Co-chair of the PDSB Parent Involvement Committee from 2012 to 2014, she promoted and encouraged parent involvement by organizing workshops, speakers and activities to help family’s best support their children.

With the provincial government announcing changes to the education system that includes increased intermediate and high school class sizes, ONABSE delegates that included educators, school administrators, community members and youth workers discussed the impact of the changes and how they will affect mainly Black students. 

As part of the new education plan, the average class size requirement for Grades Nine to 12 will be 28 which is six more than the current average. The average class size for intermediate Grades Four to Eight will increase from 23.84 to 24.5.

“Given the fact that teachers don’t necessarily come from the community and classes are diverse mean teachers might not be as familiar with students and the least likely to be understanding of students who come out of their background,” said Dr. Carl James who was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of Excellence. “How do we then as parents and community people respond to these kinds of changes in the system? In going forward with these larger classes and looking at certain courses like Math and Science that are compulsory for students’ post-secondary education, teachers wouldn’t have the time to build a relationship and teach the courses. Who do you think are going to be left out in these possibilities? That’s why we have to constantly get together in gatherings like this ONABSE event to talk about what these things mean for our community.”

The province plans to make at least four e-learning courses compulsory, starting in 2020-21. Teachers will create assignments and moderate interactions between students using electronic technologies such as message boards.

“Sometimes, teaching and learning come out of a relationship between two people,” said James who is the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community & Diaspora. “Gatherings and discussions like these where we look at the educational context in which we are working in these days are absolutely critical if we are going to go forward and leave no student behind.”

One of the presenters at the ONABSE conference, James spoke of the need for parents to become more engaged in their children’s education.

“Far too many high school students feel they can handle some of the issues in school and they don’t think it’s necessary for their parents to be involved,” he said. “Parents need to have conversations with their children and work with them.”

James is a Professor in the Faculty of Education and Director of the York Centre for Education and Community. Also cross-appointed in the Sociology and Social Work graduate programs, he has conducted extensive research that examines the schooling, educational and athletic experiences of marginalized and racialized young people.

Dr. Carl James

Dr. Carl James

Prior to joining the Faculty of Education in 1993 and becoming a full Professor 10 years later, James was the Director of the Sociology graduate program. He also taught at Sheridan College and was the course director in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Physical Education & Health from 1992 to 1995 and again in 1997.

His research interests include equity in education related to ethnicity, race, social class and gender; anti-racism and multicultural education; urban education; youth & sport; practitioner research; community development; immigrant settlement; immigration and minority issues; and social & educational issues in the Caribbean.

For 18 years up until 2015, James worked with teacher educators, teachers and teacher candidates at Sweden’s Uppsala University, which honoured him in 2006 with an honorary doctorate for his contribution to social equity and anti-racism education.

The ACCN, which fosters and enhances the work of Black churches and community organizations to steer young people away from violence, was recognized with a Community Service Award of Excellence.

For the past decade, the organization has partnered with elite independent private schools to provide scholarships for Black youths.

Board Chair Rev. Alvin Nicholson and Executive Director Cherryl Lewis accepted the award on behalf of the ACCN.

The ONABSE annual general meeting was held prior to the conference.

The executive comprises Warren Salmon (founding president), Tiffany Ford (vice-president), Olive Creary-Sachel (treasurer), Dewit Lee (secretary), Mona Walrond (administrator commission chair), Alexis Dawson (governance commission chair), Dr. Dori Tunstall (higher education commission chair), Alison Robinson (instructional strategies & support commission chair), Jacquie Getfield (parents commission chair), Jessica Rayne (program development & research commission chair), Dr. Elizabeth Sinclair-Atwell (retired education commission chair), Deijaumar Clarke (students commission chair ) and Jackilyn Wallace (parliamentarian).

The African Heritage Educators’ Network (AHEN), the Alliance of Educators for Black Students (AEBS), the Durham Black Educators’ Network (DBEN) and the Peel Association of African-Canadian Educators (PAACE) each have a member on the board. They are Cecil Peter, Rose Gibbs, Eleanor McIntosh and Simone Wallace.

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