We believe that all students should be able to rise to their highest potential in our schools. However, for this to be true, we must address those students who were historically, and are currently being, under served and marginalized.
In spite of our best efforts, these patterns continue to manifest. No one would keep investing their money into a company that never makes a profit. Public education cannot continue to work the same way, under the same structures, as that will only perpetuate the same results.
According to a Toronto Stararticle, "Black students make up only about 12 per cent of high school students in the Toronto public board — about 32,000 — yet account for more than 31 per cent of all suspensions. White students account for some 29 per cent of suspensions, but make up nearly one-third of the entire student body ... For the 2006/2007 school year, suspension rates were highest for aboriginal students, followed by black and mixed-race students."
For too long, there have been persistent gaps affecting Indigenous, Black, racialized and marginalized students. Just as we do in the private sector, we have to hold ourselves accountable to our impact, not just our good intentions.
Some would have us believe that the focus on equity is a distraction based on the politics of a misguided left. They spark fear by creating false arguments that a focus on equity would cause some children to lose services. They speak in binaries. The work of equity, though, is about each and every individual child, and working to help all students receive the support that will assist them to rise to their highest potential. It is not about taking away supports that do work for some children.
Education systems and structures are artifacts of values and attitudes. Legislation in this country emerged in the context of colonization. At that time, the prevailing beliefs horrifically included that Indigenous peoples were uncivilized and needed to be "civilized" through Residential Schools and removing them from the land. This allowed land to be taken by colonial powers and made into a "resource." The creation of law was done at a time when black people were seen as tools of economic benefit for those in power, and women were seen as being less than men. While some of these laws have since been overturned, their impact is still apparent.
We must ask questions about if the structures we are working in are creating the results we want, or if they're barriers recreating problems we're trying to solve.
In education circles, we commonly hear conversations around mental health and well-being; however, the way these are constructed do not take into consideration the lived realities of marginalized children. Instead, these issues get lumped under the frame of "bullying" and "safe schools," often missing acknowledging the harm and trauma facing students.
We see this also in conversations about grit and resiliency. While we do want children to be resilient, the prevailing conversations often puts the onus and responsibility on children while completely ignoring the work systems/structures of education need to do, to change the ways children are being harmed. Marginalized children are here because they are resilient. What they need help with is to learn to navigate systems that often see them as less capable, and to learn how to explicitly be successful in spite of that.
None of this will change until we begin talking about equity as a leadership competency. Equity is one of the few areas of expertise where someone can get a PhD, yet have their expertise minimized in numerous sectors because we perceive ourselves as "good" or "nice" people. If I am a good person and I see myself as fair, I automatically believe I'm equitable. But being nice is not enough.
Equity is a journey, not a destination. We must ask questions about if the structures we are working in are creating the results we want, or if they're barriers recreating problems we're trying to solve. We must also be mindful that many Indigenous people do not want equity, but rather the right to self-determination and self-governance. That is their right.
The Ontario Ministry of Education Equity Action Plan is a step in the right direction, but boards must be held accountable to look at who is under served and begin designing processes that will change those structures.
The Ministry is also requiring the collection of demographic data. The Toronto District School Board, and others, should be credited for paving the path, as the data is being collected and shared in transparent ways. Inclusive Design, a process to support school improvement planning by centreing the needs of the most marginalized students in order to achieve excellence for all, is also a step in the right direction.
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Changing outcomes for marginalized students requires brave leadership. We must move away from conversations that erase identity and call for us to be colourblind. To allow those conversations is to willfully dismiss the lived experiences of children.
We will only keep repeating the mistakes of the past and holding our collective future hostage if we do so. We have an opportunity ahead of us, and it is our professional obligation to actively, courageously and transparently work to close persistent gaps and raise high expectations for all children.
We can say we believe all our students can succeed, but only our actions will show that we're serious.
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