By LLOYD McKELL
The basic obligation of a school is to ensure the best conditions for success for all of its students, regardless of background, social identity or family circumstances.
The recent – and previous – discussions at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) concerning the need for an Africentric school underscore the fact that the fulfillment of this obligation continues to be elusive.
Students of African and Aboriginal descent, historically the most marginalized groups in our society, continue to have the lowest rates of school success relative to other sub-groups. This achievement gap is confirmed by the board’s own research data, and has persisted for decades. This inequity of outcomes continues despite the very best efforts of a school board known for its dedication to addressing diversity in its educational mission.
The Africentric school decision is an important one for the school board. Hopefully, the school will provide exemplary practices, which can be applied to other schools to benefit all students.
However, the most important lesson to be taken from the Africentric school debate should not be missed: The need to re-focus on approaches that ensure each school works equally well for each student regardless of background or social circumstances. All of the TDSB trustees are united on this critical goal. Persistent achievements gaps between sub-groups of students are not acceptable in our publicly-funded school system.
No new discoveries need to be invented in order to create the conditions for success for all students in our diverse urban environment. We already know all that we need to know in order to improve outcomes for racialized and disadvantaged groups in our schools. What is needed is a sustained commitment in each school to building inclusive and equitable learning environments for all, with specific responsibilities for all stakeholders – including parents and caregivers.
Inclusiveness means that the needs and circumstances of each student and family are given equal consideration in the school’s priorities and activities; equity means that the most disadvantaged under-achieving students receive disproportionately more support in order to achieve outcomes equivalent to those of the most advantaged, high-achieving students. This agenda must be undertaken as a core function of each school’s mission, and should not be subsumed under other generalized approaches.
This goal may be a challenging one given the complexity of needs in our urban environment. But it is not an unattainable one. Current school dropout rates of 40 per cent or more for some demographic groups can be significantly reduced with the right commitments to inclusive and equitable education.
The Ontario Government provides school boards with a policy framework and guidelines for developing inclusive and equitable schools. The TDSB has a wealth of experience and staff expertise to support the achievement of this goal. Achievement gaps can be closed.
Lloyd McKell is a retired executive officer for student and community equity with the Toronto District School Board.