Ontario school boards launch graduation coach program for black students

The Ministry of Education $1.57 million into the project, which will run in eight school boards. The grad coaches will act as mentors and advisors for black students.

The pilot project focused on mentoring black students runs until August before being reviewed again

Michael Abraham and Chad McPherson are the first every black graduation coaches at HWDSB. They hope to connect with black youth and lead them to success. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Chad McPherson and Michael Abraham are each bringing years of experience in the hallways of education to their new roles as the first ever Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board graduation coaches for black students.

The school board, along with a number of other boards launched the pilot project in the new year to help black students graduate and excel in and out of the classroom.

Yohana Otite, HWDSB's human rights and equity officer, tells CBC News the trial program is the first of its kind in Ontario for black students.

"Outcomes for black students are significantly lower than their peers in the education sector and we also have evidence that shows systemic racism causes this outcome," she says.

"Black students don't see themselves represented in the school among their teachers  and school staff."

Chad McPherson and Michael Abraham will each have 17 students from Bernie Custis Secondary School and Westdale Secondary School respectively. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

A report cited by the board show black students are less likely to apply to post-secondary, are expelled three times more than other students, drop out at higher rates and have trouble affording schooling costs more often. 

The Ministry of Education tells CBC News the pilot is also based on a similar program for Indigenous students, which they say almost doubled Indigenous students' graduation rates throughout four years.

The graduation coaches will act as mentors and advisors in the government's effort to "end anti-black racism."

The province has put about $1.57 million into the pilot, which will run in the following school boards:

  • Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.
  • Toronto District School Board.
  • Peel District School Board.
  • York Region District School Board.
  • Ottawa Carleton District School Board.
  • Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario (CEPEO).
  • Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board.
  • Greater Essex County District School Board.

HWDSB got about $121,050 of that money for the program, which will run until August, when it will be re-evaluated based on anecdotal evidence from the coaches.

Meet HWDSB's first black graduation coaches 

McPherson will coach about 17 students at Bernie Custis Secondary School and Abraham will coach a similar number of students at Westdale Secondary School.

Abraham has worked with HWDSB's in alternative education and spent time at the Space Youth Centre in Hamilton while McPherson was an educational assistant at Sir John A. Macdonald Secondary School.

Both will make individualized plans for each student and they tell CBC News about half of their assigned students are already "familiar faces."

"We're hoping to break barriers, really listen to the students and what their needs are and [are] looking to springboard a level of support for them," McPherson says.

"We want to advocate for them, help them out, build relationships in the community and help them achieve success in school."

But it's also simpler than that.

"I just want to give them some advice. I feel like most of these kids don't really get that at home," he says.

"Every weekend is like a fresh start, because they normally go through something traumatic on the days they aren't in school."

Yohana Otite, HWDSB human rights and equity officer, stands to the right of Chad McPherson and Michael Abraham, the new coaches in the graduation program for black students. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Abraham says the coaching will help quell feelings of isolation when black students walk in hallways not looking like most others.

He says each coach will have a room in the school that will act as a safe space for black students and adds both coaches will merge some activities to introduce students from both schools.

Pilot project comes amid tension from black community

The coaches will also get to interact with students' families and host some events outside of school hours to provide wraparound care.

The pilot program comes as hundreds of students at Bernie Custis walked out of classes to protest the school board pausing a mentorship program for black youth.

But Abraham doesn't think it will hurt their chances of connecting with students.

"We will engage more intensively with the students on our list, but in a general way, we'll be available to any black youth," he says.

"We're really getting at the heart of 'who is in your life that is supportive and if you don't have that, how do we begin building that?' "


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.