Ottawa

Student survey aimed at understanding diversity, OCDSB says

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board says it's embarking on a project to collect demographic data from all its students because it wants a better understanding of their diversity — and their needs.

School board says surveys will be voluntary and confidential

Demographic information about students from junior kindergarten to Grade 12 will be gathered starting Nov. 26. (CBC)

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board says it's embarking on a project to collect demographic data from all its students because it wants a better understanding of their diversity — and their needs.

Starting Nov. 26, all OCDSB students will be asked for personal information including details related to their race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. The survey will end Dec. 13.

There are particular groups of students that do not feel safe, do not feel a sense of belonging.- Jacqueline Lawrence, OCDSB

Jacqueline Lawrence, the board's diversity and equity coordinator, said the information will help administrators and teachers provide stronger support services for students. 

"If we don't understand the specific types of support that students need, then we'll not be able to fully ensure that they leave with a sense of ... academic success, as well as a sense of well-being," Lawrence told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Tuesday. 

Is it the school's place to know a student's race, religion and sexual identity? 8:55

The OCDSB first carried out surveys in 2011 to gather a more complete picture of its high school student population. The school board's website said it used the information "to make decisions about instructional practice, programs, partnerships and services that are available to students."

The Toronto Public School Board previously collected similar data, which led to the discovery that black students faced higher suspension rates than their peers.

Surveys confidential, not anonymous

For the first time, the voluntary surveys will be administered to younger students, too.

Data will be gathered from all students attending OCDSB schools, with parents completing surveys for students in junior kindergarten to Grade 6, while students in Grades 7 to 12 will fill out surveys themselves.

The surveys are confidential, Lawrence explained, but not anonymous.

Jacqueline Lawrence, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board's diversity and equity coordinator, says collecting the data helps students feel like they have a place in their schools. (Raisa Patel/CBC)

"What this will allow us to do is to be able to provide unique identifiers so that we can link the student data information to current information that we have around achievements, around suspension."

That doesn't mean that personal information linked to specific students will be made public, however.

"When we do our rollout of the report it will be disaggregated information, but no names will be revealed," Lawrence said. 

Improving 'sense of belonging'

Last year, a group of parents from Ottawa's black community asked the OCDSB to collect race-based data after they felt their children faced discrimination within the school system.

At the time, the school board said data collection was planned for 2019 and that it was setting standards for how the information should be obtained. Lawrence said she was hoping to take such concerns further.

Richard Sharpe, left, called on the OCDSB to collect data to improve the experiences and graduation rates of students of colour after he said his 16-year-old son faced racial discrimination at school. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)

"There are particular groups of students that do not feel safe, do not feel a sense of belonging," she said, pointing to anecdotal information she had heard from black students at one Ottawa school.

"Once we started unpacking the stories and what that looked like, I can tell you that of the 40 students that came forward, about a half of them were thinking of dropping out."

After working with administrative and support staff, Lawrence said student experiences radically shifted.

"I can't even recognize some of these students right now because their confidence has gone through the roof," she said.

Survey data will be made publicly available in spring 2020.

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning