Edmonton schools failing Black students, advocates say

A lack of Black educators, cultural bias and prejudicial academic streaming are just some ways Edmonton schools are failing Black students, say parents and advocates.

Boards have no data on Black students or educators

Black parents and students are holding a rally Saturday after a demonstration at the francophone school board earlier this month. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

A lack of Black educators, cultural bias and prejudicial academic streaming are just some of the ways Edmonton schools are failing Black students, say parents and advocates.

As the Black Parents Association of Alberta (BPAA) holds another rally on Saturday, advocates say they have long called for more inclusive classrooms in Edmonton but seen little progress.

"Schools are supposed to be protecting students from institutional barriers to their success," said education consultant Sagal Yusuf in an interview Friday. "They're not supposed to expose them to more racial trauma."

Yusuf, who spent five years working at Edmonton Public Schools, said despite existing inclusion and safety policies, the learning environment does not set up Black students to succeed and pushes them out instead.

"It's just a matter of somebody stepping up and saying, 'Okay this is what we're going to do to enforce policies that are already in place that are meant to protect students'," Yusuf said.

Educator Sagal Yusuf says existing policies need to be enforced to allow Black students to excel. (Sagal Yusuf)

'Treated differently'

Dieudonné Bessasse, a coordinator for BPAA, said the majority of students at Edmonton's francophone schools are Black but most of the teachers and administrators are white. Of the teachers who are Black, few have permanent jobs, he said.

He said a lack of cultural training among white educators at the Greater North Central Francophone Education School Board results in alienation and both psychological and academic harm.

"Our kids are treated differently compared to white kids," Bessasse said. "The Black students are not treated equally when it comes to schooling and when it comes to respect."

He shared a personal example of his son, a Grade two student who usually performs well but chose not to write a test. He later told his dad it was because the teacher didn't understand him or ever believe his side of the story.

"He decided not to do the job properly because the teacher was treating him unfairly," said Bessasse, whose concerns for his children prompted him to enrol at the University of Alberta where he is currently studying education.

Dieudonné Bessasse organized this month's demonstrations against anti-Black systemic racism in schools. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

'Brushed under the rug'

Yusuf recalled her own experience growing up in Ontario where she didn't see a Black teacher until graduate school — someone who could empower her and validate her experiences around race.

"It's hard to put microaggressions into words when you're a kid," Yusuf said, explaining how racism could be dismissed by white educators as something else. "Now in Alberta, having spent the last 10 years here, my nieces and nephews are almost out of high school and they're having the same experience."

She called on boards to enforce affirmative action policies, similar to Ontario's strategy in the 70s that closed the gender gap among educators. 

When it comes to Black newcomer students, Yusuf said changes are also needed.

She said she has seen some students with language challenges incorrectly placed in a program for children with learning difficulties, making it hard to find a good job, upgrade or pursue a post-secondary degree.

"They're just getting a bunch of credits so they can be pushed out of school," Yusuf said.

Similarly, she said during expulsion hearings she took part in, little was done to understand or support students or their families, who often didn't speak the language.

"A lot of times the broader issues are ignored," Yusuf said. "Especially around anti-Black racism. It's always brushed under the rug."

No data on Black students or educators

CBC requested figures showing the number of Black educators compared to Black students from Edmonton Public and Greater North Central Francophone but both boards don't collect race-based data. 

The public board said it's something being considered. The board of trustees, which has no Black representation, is also working with community members and students to create and update policies that incorporate anti-racist education.

Former trustee Cheryl Johner resigned in June after making racist comments about refugee students.

"Our board of trustees has acknowledged that racism and discrimination exists in our division and that we have work to do," EPSB spokesperson Anna Batchelor wrote in an email, listing steps such as anti-racism training.

"We encourage any current or former students and employees who may have concerns to reach out to their principal or trustee representative."

Greater North Central Superintendent Robert Lessard said teachers and staff have received significant anti-racism training and the francophone board has worked with researchers to identify systemic issues. 

The board launched an anti-racism group in June and plans to hold a community forum and work with experts at York University.

More recently, three Black women have been hired in leadership roles as principal, assistant principal and vice principal, Lessard wrote in an email.

"The board has taken and continues to take steps to examine how we can improve and create more inclusive schools."

The BPAA rally begins at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the legislature.