The data is clear that Black male students in Grades Seven and Eight are not meeting the province’s educational requirements.
Some 60 per cent of students born in the Caribbean and 55 per cent of East African migrants are failing in four subjects. In addition, Black men represent one of the largest groups of students failing the Grade 10 literacy test and not graduating from high school.
With many of these students subjected to challenges, including racism, poverty, lack of opportunity, neighbourhood violence and social isolation, provincial court Judge Donald McLeod issued a clarion call to teachers to do more to ensure that these students are put in positions to succeed.
“As a teacher, the expectation is that you will get in there and get your hands dirty,” he said in the keynote address at the Durham Black Educators’ Network’s (DBEN) 10th annual student recognition ceremony at Sinclair Secondary School in Whitby. “You will figure out what it takes to get these persons to understand where they are in life and how it is that they get to where they need to be. What I am saying to you is that if you want to be a cultivator, you have to make sure that you put your hands in the dirt because that’s the only way that those students are going to actually realize that you are willing to do something.”
The theme of the event was “Activating Success, Cultivating Pathways to Infinite Possibilities”.
McLeod, who founded and chairs 100 Strong, an initiative to fund a summer school program for 12- and 13-year-old Black boys and co-chairs Stand-up, which is a mentorship program for Grade Seven and Eight boys, the majority of whom reside in designated priority neighbourhoods, can identify with the many Black male students who are struggling in high school.
Raised in public housing without a father, he failed every subject in Grade Four, including gym and took general courses in Grade 10. The only reason he ended up at McMaster University was because the name sounded good.
“It’s easy to cultivate a plant that you know is going to grow into a tree in the forest,” he said. “It’s easy to make sure that the perennials work because they are going to come back the way they are supposed to be. But I am not a perennial. I am a risk. I might or I might not and I may or may not. In your class, you may say to yourself that these four over here are doing fantastic and they are going to be great. But I am not in that number. When it is that you talk about cultivating endless possibilities, I wonder what it is you do for those that are in my position.
“It’s easy when we talk about the extremes and the ones that are very good or very bad. But it’s different when you are dealing with the ones in between. That’s where I think you make your money. Either you are going to be good at this or you should stop doing this. I don’t think you decide whether you are a good teacher based on the fact that three or five per cent of your class does well. Right now, we are missing a whole segment of students.”
Equating teachers to farmers, McLeod made it clear that educators – in the best of interest of their students – had to make a decision whether they wanted to teach or be chief executive officers.
“There are some people that just want to teach for a while and then they are going to figure out what they are going to do after,” he said. “But in that bit of time, you have come across a lot of students that are not transitional. You may want to transition, but your students are trying to get an education. So, sometimes what happens is that you get into this thing thinking that I am going to be the CEO when all we are looking for is farmers. If you are not invested in the process, then that means that in the time that you are transitioning, those persons that are inside of your classes are losing because they are not gaining the opportunity to get full value.”
An accomplished litigator with a very keen interest in community and social justice issues, McLeod said the onus is on teachers who are not up to par to get better.
“Nobody should have to shine the light on you,” said McLeod, who successfully argued the R v Golden case in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999 that addressed the constitutionality of police strip searches and the landmark 2009 R v Douse case that revolutionized the traditionally used racial vetting process that now takes into consideration non-conscious racism. “I am advocating for those persons that need teachers to fall in love with their job. The words that you say can extend my reach, but the actions that you do will extend my possibilities.”
Awards were presented to elementary students and high school graduates for their leadership in school and the community. Selected by their teachers or administrators, the students’ nominations were reviewed by an eight-member selection committee comprising educators and community members. Of the 15 nominations, seven were chosen as this year’s award recipients.
“These awards recognize their leadership capacity in school and the community and for them, this event is self-fulfilling,” said DBEN chair and Durham District School Board (DDSB) administrative officer, Eleanor McIntosh. “It gives them a sense of self-worth and it also demonstrates to people around them in their schools that the potential and possibilities they have are endless.”
The inaugural Mark Joel Trailblazer Award was presented to Pickering High School Grade 12 student, Samantha Griffith, who aspires to be a high school teacher.
The DDSB superintendent retired last August after 35 years in public education.
“To be the first recipient is such an honour,” said Griffith, who will enter York University in September. “I am dumbfounded.”
Activating Student Success Awards recipients were GL Roberts Collegiate & Vocational Institute graduate and Ontario rugby player, Christina Branch, who aspires to be a physiotherapist; Maxwell Heights Secondary School Grade 12 student, Shailene Panylo, who will pursue molecular biology studies at the University of Western Ontario; J. Clarke Richardson Collegiate graduate, Cassandra Germaine, who was unable to attend the event; Pickering High School Grade 12 student, Crystal Bryan, who migrated from Jamaica three years ago and has a passion for aviation; Carruthers Creek Public School Grade Eight student, Racquel Anderson and Kesherah Bruce, who is a Grade Seven student at Pierre Elliott Trudeau Public School.