By PATRICK HUNTER
When Charis Newton-Thompson leaves her office at the end of this week, it ends an association of more than 40 years with the Toronto District School Board –and all its predecessor boards – as an educator. She is retiring. That, we can only hope, is just the formal aspect of a career that has always sought to make the education system work, not only for students of African descent, but with them very much in mind.
Newton-Thompson’s last official title, as she leaves the TDSB, is Manager of Curriculum Review. I never asked her, but I suspect that her preference would have been to retire as the principal of a school that had set a pattern of achievement for Black students that would become the example of how it could be done. This “compromise” (my term) assignment was given to her while the Board awaited the final outcome of the events at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute.
In 2007, Jordan Manners, a 15 year-old student at Jefferys was shot and killed. The TDSB engaged Julian Falconer, a prominent Toronto lawyer, to chair a panel to look into the conditions that led up to Manners’ death and to make recommendations as to improvements that can be made to ensure student and faculty safety in schools.
The Falconer panel absolved Newton-Thompson of any wrongdoing in the events surrounding Manners’ death.
While the panel was still making inquiries, it came out during the course of its investigation that a young woman had been sexually assaulted at the school. Newton-Thompson and the two vice principals were immediately placed on “administrative leave” – the formal term for suspension – pending the outcome of the investigations surrounding this matter.
In all of the associated investigations, Newton-Thompson was exonerated. As it turned out, one vice principal who had knowledge of the assault did not follow the appropriate protocols in reporting the incident.
These were also the findings of the Ontario College of Teachers, the regulatory body which reviews complaints against teachers in the province.
Notwithstanding those findings that cleared Newton-Thompson of any culpability in either of these cases, the Board had not seen it fit to restore her principalship and assign her to a school.
One of the challenges that outstanding members of the African Canadian community face is that they often become the focus of attention – or perhaps more apt, targets. It is not difficult to run through our history, especially in Toronto, to find individuals who have excelled in their positions and who, once they have shaken the tree, find themselves discredited, often falsely. And when the truth is uncovered, the rush to restore their credentials moves at a snail’s pace – if they move at all.
Charis Newton-Thompson, to my mind, is one of those people.
Starting as far back as the Black Education Project in the 1970s, Newton-Thompson has not only demonstrated a special concern for the education of Black students, particularly in the Toronto area schools, she has been a very strong advocate for improvements. Her career has enriched her credentials with classroom and administrative experience that would provide valuable guidance to a well-meaning and well-thinking board to make every effort to exploit.
But Charis is leaving without bitterness. She says the time has come. Her retirement falls very much within the lines of her plans, even before these challenges arose, which include completing her doctorate. She is very much open to working with the Board in an advisory capacity to improve the Board’s approach to educating Black kids.
The Ontario government recently announced changes to how teachers will be prepared to enter the classroom. For one thing, the program will be expanded to two years, and the number of applicants to become teachers will be reduced. One hopes that this expansion includes a solid foundation in anti-racism education – not just “diversity”. In this, Charis would be a tremendous asset in not only advising on curriculum, but in helping potential teachers understand the kids, and particularly Black kids, they will be trying to teach.
But one cannot help the feeling that we have essentially lost one of our best advocates within the system. The work she started at Jefferys is incomplete and it was unfortunate that she was not given the opportunity to continue its development – it is unlikely that this kind of work will see a completion. The best one could hope for is the establishment of a solid progressive foundation, with hand-chosen like-minded successors to continue the work.
Charis’ teaching experience began in Guyana in 1971. She has taught in Jamaica and Canada. She has been an advisor on anti-racism and issues related to anti-racism in education. She was part of the short-lived Anti-Racism and Ethno-cultural Equity department at the Ministry of Education established following the Stephen Lewis Report. She has served as vice principal with George Harvey and Nelson A. Boylen Collegiate Institutes. She knows.
While I wish Charis all the very best in her retirement, I hope, and suspect, that she will stay as closely engaged as she can.