No one has done more to advance the education equity agenda in the city in the past three decades than Lloyd McKell who retired from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) last week.
At a farewell reception, family and colleagues hailed the exemplary work and contributions of the hard-working and dedicated educator and activist who was in his office at 7 a.m. on the last day on the job after leaving at around midnight the previous night.
“When it comes to equity, you get it,” former education director Gerry Connelly told McKell who joined the former Toronto Board of Education (TBE) in 1976 as a community relations officer. “You are committed with both the heart and the mind… Toronto’s diverse communities and all of the educators who dedicate their lives to educating students have seen the impact of your contribution to a more inclusive and equitable society.
“You have so much to give – experience, integrity, wisdom and commitment – to equity and the incredible ability to aspire. This does not retire when you leave the TDSB. The equity agenda has come a long way since the early 1970s, but there is still much to do in order to have a truly equitable society.”
In August 2008, the TDSB was recognized with the prestigious Bertelsmann award from a non-profit social policy body in Germany for its commitment to equity. McKell and Connelly along with then board chair John Campbell received the $235,000 prize on behalf of Canada’s largest school board.
Ontario’s Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne praised McKell as an education equity pioneer and made a presentation to him on behalf of the provincial government. The mother of three first met McKell in the mid-1980s when she was a parent activist.
“Lloyd understood the central role of parents in both the education of their own children and then in the life of a healthy functional school board,” said Wynne, a former provincial Minister of Education. “He understood that the best interests of kids were served when the school system and parents were able to consolidate their roles as natural allies because that wasn’t always the case.
“To do that, he helped us to understand that all parents had to have access…He treated all parents and community members as valued and valuable members of the education community and he provided opportunities for us to bring out our talent in the neighbourhood, in the broader context of the board.”
In his long and distinguished career with the TDSB, McKell helped to develop myriad initiatives to involve parents from diverse communities in the school system and assisted with the development of the Race Relations, the International Languages and the Black Cultural Heritage Advisory Committees which were established to advise the board on programs and strategies to meet the needs of racial and cultural minorities.
“I did not come alone, but instead as part of a large body of parents – some of us are now grandparents – community members, students and educators who want to thank you for your long engagement with our collective struggle for education equity and transformation,” said Dr. Keren Brathwaite a co-founder of the Organization of Parents of Black Children (OPBC) and the University of Toronto’s highly successful Transitional Year Program (TYP).
“We are here to thank you for being the bridge between the people and the board so the parents and students’ voices could be heard. Your gift of communication and empathy made the parent accept you as one of us even though you were representing a board of education against which we were pushing for change.”
Lawyer Cornel Wright identified McKell, who he met in 1990 when he was in Grade 11 at North Toronto Collegiate Institute, as his mentor, role model and sounding board.
“Lloyd is all of the things that great teachers should be,” said Wright who, as a partner in Torys LLP, represents some of Canada’s largest companies in their most significant transactions. “He encouraged students to think, he taught me to give respect to others, he set high standards for me, he instilled in me the value of learning to speak for those who don’t have a voice and most of all he helped me to see how much I had to learn. To Lloyd, it didn’t matter who you were. What was important to him was that you had something to say and you had a right to be heard.”
McKell graduated from Queen’s Royal College in Trinidad & Tobago and taught Latin and Spanish for three years at St. George’s College in Barataria before coming to Canada as a foreign student in 1967.
He graduated with an Economics degree from the University of Toronto at Scarborough where he met current Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor David Onley who at the time was running for student council president. McKell was the Scarborough College’s International Students Association president.
“That was the beginning of a great friendship,” said Onley. “We are honouring a man who has made an enormous contribution to our city, our province and our country.”
After graduating from the U of T, McKell worked as a program director with the now defunct Harriet Tubman Centre and was the first chair of the Scarborough Black Community Education Committee before joining the city’s school board. He was promoted to coordinate the community relations program in 1986, a position he held for two years before assuming the role of community services central coordinator.
He provided system leadership for parent and community involvement at the TDSB and wrote the board’s equity foundation statement that provides the basis for ensuring fairness, equity and inclusion are essential principles of the school system and are integrated into the policies, programs, operations and practices.
McKell also advocated for an Africentric Alternative School long before parents Angela Wilson and Donna Harrow approached the board in the summer of 2007, requesting that they consider the establishment of the school to reach students who were not doing well in the mainstream system.
Students of the school, which opened in September 2009, rendered a cultural tribute to McKell who served as the board’s first executive officer for student and community equity for nearly five years before being appointed a senior advisor to education director Dr. Chris Spence in June 2010.
“The Africentric School is your moment in time to be great,” he told the performers. “This has been a particularly special moment for me and I hope the entire city will embrace your school.”
McKell’s daughter, Erin who teaches at Fairglen Junior Public School in Scarborough, made a presentation on behalf of the family and read a letter from McKell’s mother who resides in Trinidad and Tobago.
“You have made us proud,” wrote May McKell who turns 90 in May.
South African Consul General Tselane Mokuena also paid tribute to McKell on behalf of the South African government and people.
While at the U of T, McKell developed a strong interest in South Africa as a result of his association with fellow exiled students. He also chaired the Toronto Arts Against Apartheid Foundation, organized annual student conferences on apartheid and was a member of the organizing committee that hosted former president Nelson Mandela’s first visit to Canada in June 1990. McKell organized an event at Central Technical High School for students and teachers of Toronto schools to listen to an address by Mandela, he coordinated the participation of 45,000 students to attend the Mandela and The Children event at SkyDome in 1998 and he spearheaded the re-naming of Park Public School in Regent Park to Nelson Mandela Park Public School.
“Lloyd represents everything that Madiba (Mandela’s Xhosa clan name) stood for,” said Mokuena.