A road map for black parents navigating bias in the school system

Beginning in junior kindergarten, a new series of information sheets for parents lays out practical tips for black parents who are concerned about discrimination in their children's schools.

Information sheets give concrete tips for students of all ages to reach their potential

Carl James is a professor at York University and studies anti-black racism in education. On Saturday, he unveiled a series of information sheets aimed at black parents helping their kids navigate the school system. (York University)

Many of the tips in a new series of information sheets for black parents could be applicable to any student, anywhere, encouraging parents to read to their kids, celebrate successes, and reinforce a regular homework routine.

But running through the pages, which cover every grade from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, are pieces of advice designed specifically to protect and support black children and youth moving through schools where teachers may underestimate or even fear them.

"It's giving parents a sense of how they might start thinking about the education system and schooling, and it's also how to be an advocate for their child," said Carl James, who is co-author of the information sheets and a professor at York University.

The first information sheet looks at junior kindergarten, where the possibility already looms that a teacher is seeing black children through a biased lens.

It says parents also need to be on the lookout for a lack of diverse representation in the classroom, and supplement with books and events that celebrate black stories and history.

By the middle school years, the document says, the stakes are even higher — students must make the fraught decision of what academic stream to enter, high schools need to be vetted for track histories of racism, suspensions become more common for black students, and guidance counsellors or teachers may inadvertently discourage your child from their career goals. 

"One of the things that we keep finding in research is the streaming of black students and the assumption about their interest in academics," said James, who is unveiling the information sheets at an event on Saturday. 

'It's about time'

Though the information sheets James co-wrote are built out of research conducted in the Greater Toronto Area, James says the tips can "absolutely" be useful to parents around the province and country.

"What is applicable is, relationships with teachers, the fact that you have to represent your child, the fact that the child has to understand how his or her racial identity is a factor in the kind of education that he or she is getting," said James.

That strikes a chord with Colleen Peters, president of the Caribbean African Multicultural Association of Thunder Bay.

"These information sheets are really good, because it motivates parents to really be engaged and gives them really concrete strategies to ensure kids are connecting with their culture, and what they learn about history is balanced," she told CBC Toronto. 

Peters, who has helped raise several young relatives, says the tips are clear and seem easy to implement, even for parents and guardians in smaller black communities like Thunder Bay's.  

"You know, I [thought] immediately, is this going to apply to the unique setting of Thunder Bay? But I really thoroughly enjoyed reading these sheets," she said. "It's about time."  

The tips also resonated with Peters as a former student, who shared memories of being the only black student in her classrooms while growing up in southwestern Ontario. 

"Sometimes you sacrifice some of your identity just to survive, but we know that when you're not embracing your culture and your identity that also causes a lot of problems for youth," she said.   

Data from Toronto — and almost nowhere else

While parents are able to make use of the sheets no matter where they are, it's likely they'll be coming in with a somewhat unclear picture of what their children are up against.

Until recently, the Toronto District School Board was the only board tracking race-based data on student success.

It was that data that James drew from, along with consultations with parents and educators, when he released a major report called "Towards Race Equity in Education" in 2017.

The report found that black students in the Greater Toronto Area were being streamed into applied instead of academic programs at a much higher rate than other students, as well as facing disproportionately high rates of suspension and expulsion.

TDSB data paints a bleak portrait of black student success in Toronto, where almost half of black students are streamed into the 'applied' stream, compared with about 20 per cent of their white peers. (Peel District School Board/Facebook)

Its release marked the beginning of changes at municipal and provincial levels.

In Dec. 2017, TDSB trustees voted to move ahead with an equity report containing possible solutions to systemic educational barriers, among them a decision to phase out the practice of streaming Grades 9 and 10 students.

"Currently, a number of TDSB schools have begun transitioning students from applied to academic-level compulsory courses such as math, English, and science. This is a multi-year plan that aims to have a majority of Grade 9 and 10 students taking academic level compulsory courses by September 2021," said TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird in an email to CBC on Friday. 

In the fall of 2017, the province also announced an education equity action plan, this time including the decision to begin collecting data based on the ethnicity of students so they can better track success.

"A number of school boards have [now] established research programs where they're collecting such data," including York and Peel boards, said James.

A lack of race-based data has been a stumbling block for school boards and communities around the province, with advocates saying they need more data to get a true sense of where discrimination is lingering in the system.

He cautions that data collection should be viewed as the first step in a bigger process.

"If you're going to collect data, you have to collect data of all identities and do the necessary kind of intersectional analysis," James said.