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We Rise Together 2.0 brings increased focus on Board's accountability
By Zachary Roman
Another step in the ongoing journey to ensure the success of Black students in the Region of Peel was taken this week.
On January 31, the eve of Black History Month, the Peel District School Board (PDSB) launched “We Rise Together 2.0”, its new Black student success strategy.
The strategy was launched at the Board's offices in Mississauga at an event that celebrated Black students and Black culture. Black students' artwork was on display; Black students performed poetry and dance; Black students sung the Canadian and Black national anthems; and Black students offered valuable advice to their fellow students and to their educators.
We Rise Together 2.0 is a five-year plan from the PDSB with the goal to eliminate systemic racism and create better educational outcomes for Black students.
The in-depth plan has six focus areas, each of which the Board has set action and accountability items for. The areas are: develop the knowledge and skills of trustees and leaders in order to lead the implementation of the strategy; integrate the experiences of Black Canadians into the curriculum; foster anti-racist learning and working environments; continue engagement with the Black community; inspire and support Black student success; and hire and support Black staff.
Lisa Hart, the PDSB's Superintendent of Equity, Indigenous Education, School Engagement and Community Relations, said the 2.0 in We Rise Together 2.0 means building upon the work that's been happening already in the Board and community.
An initial We Rise Together plan was created back in 2017 and community advocates and the board have been continuing work on the plan since. Hart said the responsibility to implement the 2.0 plan rests across all departments of the board, so that change is made from a systemic level all the way down to the student level.
Recently, the provincial government ended an over two-year period in which it had appointed a supervisor to watch over the PDSB. The supervisor was installed after an investigation into the Board's ability to address systematic racism, specifically anti-Black racism.
Along with the supervisor came 27 directives for the Board, of which number nine was the mandatory creation of an annual equity report card. Hart explained this annual report card will show how the PDSB is making change, through tangible data, in the six different focus areas of We Rise Together 2.0.
Raquel Walker, the PDSB's Coordinating Principal of African, Black, and Afro-Caribbean Student Success, said it was the advocacy of the Peel community that helped the board realize the initial We Rise Together plan could be developed to go much deeper.
“You'll notice in the 2.0, the accountability measures are much more prominent,” said Walker. “That's what the community was saying — it's great that we have this action plan, but how do we know it's making a difference?”
As mentioned above, one of the focus areas of the 2.0 plan is implementing the experiences of Black Canadians into students' curriculum. Walker explained a network of Black studies educators has come together to work on this task, and there's now a number of new classes being offered in PDSB schools such as the Grade 11 African Canadian Studies course.
Walker said the education system has evolved but there's still work to be done to get it where it needs to be.
Rashmi Swarup, the PDSB's Director of Education, said professional development is key in ensuring the success of We Rise Together 2.0. She said the Board's senior leadership team spends half a day every single month learning about anti-Black racism. She explained there's going to be a focused recruitment strategy so that the board is able to meet the plan's focus area of hiring and supporting more Black staff.
“We do want to ensure that our students see themselves in the staff that's in front of them,” said Swarup. “I'm proud to say we have great representation of very skilled, experienced and qualified senior Black staff, and that doesn't happen without bringing intentionality to it.”
Swarup said, to her, Black student success means bringing students from the margins into the centre and then centring them in everything the board does. She said all Black students should feel like they belong, feel motivated and inspired, and know that “the sky's the limit” for them.
“Black students can achieve anything,” said Swarup.
Hart was a student in the PDSB and her kids are now students in the PDSB. To her, Black student success means having her kids come home from school at the end of the day being able to talk about being seen and heard in class, feeling valued and having their identity affirmed.
“Most importantly, (they should) know those levels of high expectations and pathways of opportunities exist for them,” said Hart.
During the launch event for We Rise Together 2.0, many speakers addressed the crowd. One of these was David Green, Chair of the PDSB. He said the work that has started will not stop and that the board will not relent; it will keep moving forward.
“Our commitment is to ensure that we continue to dismantle anti-Black racism, systematic racism, Indigenous racism and all forms of racism, to ensure that our students will never have to go through what our forefathers went through, or what you and I have went through to get here today,” said Green.
Patrice Barnes, Parliamentary Assistant to Ontario's Minister of Education, said as a mom and former trustee, she understands the critical role Ontario's public school system must play in developing Black excellence and preparing Black students for success. She said her government has been working hard on this topic, by doing things like launching the Black graduation coach program, eliminating discretionary suspension for Junior Kindergarten to Grade 3 students, and ending the streaming of Grade 9 students into applied and academic courses.
“We know there's more to do province-wide, which is why we are all continuing to work to confront all racism, including anti-Black racism, in Ontario schools,” said Barnes.
Danielle Dowdy addressed attendees on behalf of We Rise Together 2.0 parent representatives that helped with the plan. She said the plan has been a labour of love and that parents have given their time, energy and expertise to the board, and that it hasn't been easy.
“Countless meetings, late night phone calls… supporting the ministry review,” said Dowdy.
“Anti-Black racism is corrosive and it's deadly. None of us in this battle are unscarred. Insomnia, high blood pressure, weight gain, weight loss, anxiety, frustration, sadness and tears… we do this for our children.”
Dowdy said she wanted to thank all of the young people in attendance at the event.
“Thank you for continuing to shine despite all the obstacles before you,” said Dowdy. “You are our inspiration, we will continue to fight for your education.”
PDSB students Kiara Evans and Kaden Stephen performed two spoken word poems during the event. The first poem, My Appearance, was about negative stereotypes and judging people by their skin colour, among other topics such as police brutality.
“I forgot, you only participate in Black trends, but you're never there when a Black life just came to an end…” said Evans and Stephen. “In society it seems I'll be seen as Black before being seen as a human… Appearance is all that you see? Or is it all you want me to be? A tall Black boy can't be a lawyer, that's not in my way. A tall Black boy belongs in the NBA. You wouldn't know how painful it is to hear that I'm only good for basketball.”
The second poem, If You Give a Black Child a Voice, was about giving a voice to the struggles young Black children face.
“If you give a Black child a voice, they'll tell you how they hear their name in the hallway. No, not the name they were given by their parents but the name that was given to the slaves…” said Evans and Stephen. “If you gave a Black child a voice, they'd say if you don't see my Blackness you don't see me.”
More information about We Rise Together 2.0, including the entire strategy itself, is available online at peelschools.org/black-student-success-strategy.
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