Supporting Black Student Success and Excellence
By Shellene Drakes-Tull
It’s been a year of changing mindsets and creating strategies within the Toronto District School Board to support Black student success and excellence. On a rainy morning in May, teachers from around the Board gathered at the culminating session of the Black Student Success and Excellence professional development to share their successes and strategies to engage Black students
Why Black students?
TDSB data shows that Black students have a drop-out rate almost twice that of white students. The graduation rate for Black students is 15 percentage points below white students. Black students are more than twice as likely as white students to be suspended at least once during high school.
Clearly, there was a need to do something different to support these students. “Sometimes in our work, when you’re in these schools, people ask, ‘why Black students? Why are you focusing on Black kids? What about everybody else?’” says Karen Murray, the Centrally Assigned Principal for Equity, Anti-Racism and Anti-Oppression. “We’re saying that we’re being intentional. We’re not excluding, we’re just being intentional.”
Dr. Nicole West-Burns, an educational equity consultant with the Board agrees. “Maybe we needed to do something different, because we had been engaging in some of these charity-based approaches. We had been engaging in some of these activities where we’ve said we’re inclusive, but are the experiences and outcomes for students changing that much? No.”
“You have to start with yourself”
In 2018, the TDSB partnered with the Anti-Racism Directorate and received funding to improve outcomes for Black students. “This is not the first Black student success initiative in the TDSB,” explains Karen. “For us, this conversation was already happening.”
The group, using the most current research and data into Black student achievement, designed a professional learning module that was current, relevant and real. “Because we’re pulling upon the literature and work that’s been done, there is a body of academic work. We’re not the first folks to start looking at this,” explains Nicole. “We can learn from it and then apply it within this context. What does that mean in our space? So, for an educator to go into a classroom and help their students understand the issues of oppression, discrimination, stereotypes, critical consciousness, what is the definition of racism, requires the educators to learn that. You have to start with yourself. You have to look at yourself.”
Starting in November 2018, more than 150 educators and support staff came together to do self-reflection and learn from the research and each other to create a more equitable environment for their students. In addition to the professional development and learning, there were school-based professional learning communities (PLCs), readings, and more.
One of the discussions that was had was why Blackness was only seen in February for Black History Month. Students learn about Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. “This is the only time that our children are supposed to hear about themselves? Then you want to position the darkest part of our history and think that’s OK?” asks Karen. “When we talk to Black students in Grade 5 and they say that the last time they looked at a book that had people who looked like them was in Kindergarten, that’s problematic. You have normalized whiteness. Then you want to know why our kids aren’t responding.”
Karen has seen definite changes through the work the educators and support staff have done. Some have moved from resisting change and being adamant that nothing needed to be done to recognizing that Black students weren’t getting the support they needed to excel in school.
This is why Black Student Success and Excellence professional learning is so important to creating equitable, not just equal, learning spaces. “It’s important to focus on Black students because we can’t make changes in the lives of our children to move forward if we can’t change the system and structures,” says Karen. “If we don’t do it. If we don’t intentionally name it, position it and show how it fits in the curriculum, it won’t be done.”
Case study: Oakdale Park Middle School
Using the information and self-reflection from the Black Student Success and Excellence professional learning, the educators at Oakdale Park Middle School shared what they did to engage Black students at the school. Oakdale Park is in the Jane Finch area, has a school population that’s predominately racialized, with 38% of students identifying as Black.
The staff’s PLC created a student-voice focus group and asked questions such as “What kind of things might keep Black students from doing their best at school?” and “How do you think teachers see Black students?”
The students’ answers were telling:
“Some teachers aren’t asking why they student is having an attitude but then the student is just sent to the office. Teachers should ask.”
“Some of the teachers would give me easier work in class, because they didn’t think that I could do it.
“Black students should get the support they need as any other student that may be failing should get support and colour of our skin should not affect who should get support, everyone should be able to get support in their own area of need.”
Teachers and administrators used professional learning to identify their biases and privileges, used critical consciousness to analyze the systems of inequality and participated in a monthly book club to deepen their understanding of intersectionality, white privilege and fragility and more.
For the students, staff created programs and activities, including a Black Excellence Film Series, reading books and poetry by Black authors and watching videos about the Jane Finch community, to build a sense of pride in Black students. They also wanted to increase student knowledge so they could be active participants in directing their education such as learning terms like ‘applied’ vs. ‘academic’ and their definitions, as well as developing workshops to inform parents and students about available programs at their local secondary school as well as at specialized TDSB secondary schools.
The support from administrators and the activities of learning and self-reflection empowered the staff to disrupt spaces and have tough conversations about student performance and achievement and it created more equitable learning environment for students at Oakdale Park Middle School.