'Significant shift' coming to ESL programs to end systemic racism, Peel board says

The Peel District School Board says it's refining its ESL program to be more inclusive and communicative as part of its campaign to end systemic racism in its schools. The move follows a CBC panel discussion on racism with four students — including one who said she was forced to take ESL even though she spoke fluent English.

Education Ministry directives serve as a guide to end discrimination in ESL, PDSB says

As it implements directives from the Ministry of Education aimed at combating racism, the Peel District School Board says it is improving inclusivity and communication in its ESL program. (CBC)

One of Greater Toronto's largest school boards says its making "significant changes" to end discriminatory practices in its English as a Second Language program.

The Peel District School Board (PDSB) says it is following through on directives from the Ministry of Education aimed at ending systemic racism, increasing communication with families about the ESL process and making other improvements to its program.

One of those improvements, the board says, is "translanguaging." According to a description online, it's an approach where multilingual students can take notes in their mother tongue while learning a lesson in English, for example. Or they can speak both languages interchangeably in class to understand a subject. 

"This is a significant shift," Rasulan Hoppie, the board's superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment, told CBC News. 

"More of our educators are having a better understanding of using the language, using the pieces of [students'] identity to their strength and to their benefit."

Changes are long overdue, according to students in the PDSB. The news comes after a CBC Toronto story in which students took part in a panel discussion about the racism and discrimination they face in the board's schools. One of them, Lidia Tewodros, spoke of being forced to take ESL — even though she already spoke the language well.

'Because of my accent'

Tewodros, a Grade 11 student, said when she arrived with her family from Ethiopia, she was placed in an ESL class at her school in Brampton, Ont. She was in Grade 3 at the time.

"They kept insisting to put me in ESL, even though I was excelling in English class and had a high reading level," she said.

"But because of my accent, and because I was an immigrant, they were like, 'No, she can't speak; she has to go into ESL.'"

Lidia Tewodros, a Grade 11 student from Brampton, says she was placed in an ESL class in Grade 3 despite speaking fluent English. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

Tewodros said she couldn't think of any other explanation aside from discrimination.

Since CBC News broadcast the panel discussion with Tewodros and three other PDSB students, several readers and viewers from Peel Region have commented about having similar experiences — or knowing someone else who was placed in ESL classes despite speaking English fluently.

The PDSB says it's aware of the issue and says it's determined to resolve it. The board says while the Ministry of Education's list of directives to combat racism and discrimination doesn't specifically mention ESL, many of the the directives — including destreaming and equity audits — include changes that would improve its ESL program.

'That's no longer okay'

"What we want to be doing in the PDSB is making sure that what has happened to Lidia and may have happened to other students is no longer happening," said Donna Ford, the board's superintendent of Indigenous education, anti-racism, anti-oppression and community partnerships.

"Those directives are about changing practice," she said. "Pointing to practices such as what Lidia has experienced, and saying that's no longer okay."

Ford specifically refers to the ministry's Directive 18, which says the board "shall undertake a diversity audit of schools" — meaning it would review its curriculum and resources to be reflective of its diverse students. She says this would include evaluating how students are placed in ESL classes.

Donna Ford, the PDSB's anti-racism superintendent, says the board is taking steps to call out racism and discrimination and make it clear that what happened to Lidia Tewodros is 'no longer okay.' (CBC)

"Part of that would be assessments charting student progress," Ford said.

"We're attending to those biases and those manifestations of racism that are standing in the way of students doing well, so they end up being placed where they need to be placed so they can get on with their schooling."

As it stands now, the PDSB determines which students might need to be placed in ESL based on information from "regional welcome centres" in Brampton and Mississauga dubbed "We Welcome the World."

After a collaborative assessment with a student and parents, educators make a recommendation to the school on whether or not to place the child in ESL. The board pairs families who may not have a strong grasp of English with interpreters throughout the process to help them understand, Hoppie says.

But Ford says despite that effort, some students who speak English still get placed in ESL and she blames that on discrimination.

"Biases play out and determinations are made. Full stop," she said. "That's the manifestation of institutional racism. It's already been called out in the ministry directives and our mandate is to eliminate that practice, and put in place practices that are based in anti-racist, anti-oppressive principles."

Rasulan Hoppie, the Peel District School Board's superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment, says 'there is racism that does exist within our educational system.' (CBC)

Hoppie says there's still work to be done, but the board is more committed than ever to ending systemic discrimination.

"There is racism that does exist within our educational system," he said.

"It's not something we're trying to quietly sweep under the rug. On the contrary, we're calling it out, naming it — anti-Black racism — calling it for what it is, that discriminatory practices do exist."


Ali Raza


Ali Raza is a reporter and writer for CBC News in Toronto. He has previously worked in local newsrooms across the Greater Toronto Area. You can reach him at