Schools and school boards struggle to respond to racism — and continue to fail to dismantle systemic barriers that affect Indigenous, Black and racialized students and families.
These barriers affect not only student learning, but student, family and staff well-being and sense of belonging.
Amid debates about school board effectiveness, some provinces across Canada have abolished or changed public governing structures overseeing school boards, or are debating doing so: for example, Québec abolished school boards in 2020 and Nova Scotia abolished boards in 2018. In April, New Brunswick’s minister of education defended plans to eliminate current district education councils and replace these with a provincial board and regional councils.
But school boards matter if they are places where parents and community members can engage in democratic discussion and decision-making, and respond to the needs of communities that have been historically excluded in public education.
Boards under review
In Ontario, over a number of years, several school boards have been under review by the Ontario Ministry of Education to address challenges in governance and racial injustice.
School boards have been facing demands for greater transparency and accountability.
Parents or community groups are rallying against anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, anti-Asian racism and other forms of racism against students, families and educators.
We have also noticed a rise among some white and middle-class families, school trustees and media personalities resisting or criticizing anti-racist efforts.
Anti-racism research hasn’t had significant impact
With our colleague Joseph Flessa, we synthesized and reviewed research about school board reform. We found that even though substantial research exists about anti-racism education in Ontario, it hasn’t had a significant impact on Ontario’s district policies and practices over the past two decades.
We also interviewed 12 superintendents of education in five Ontario public school districts who are engaging in anti-racist leadership. These leaders were Black, South Asian and White. Some held equity portfolios, and some were responsible for families of schools.
In addition, one of the authors of this article, Vidya, with our colleague Diana Grimaldos, interviewed 13 parents (11 Black, one South Asian and one Latinx) who are fighting for racial justice in their schools, boards and the larger community.
Based on these different studies, we’ve come up with five approaches to change. These approaches position school boards as places where inter-generational and collective transformation can happen through shared struggle and where critical democracy can be realized.
1. Challenging neutrality
Our research shows school districts must recognize that no aspect of schooling is neutral.
How people understand and experience learning, mental health and well-being, success and failure, leadership, curriculum, student voice and parent and community engagement are all influenced by social identities and positionality.
When school boards assume that there is a standard everyone should meet, they reinforce a status quo that serves the interests and needs of those with greater social power.
School boards should examine how students, families and staff are racialized through every structure, policy, curriculum approach and practice — and how racism continues to operate even as they aim to disrupt it.
2. Accountability structures
Leaders in our study stressed the importance of school boards collecting demographic data based on Indigeneity, race, socio-economic status, the spectrum of gender and sexual diversity, place of birth, disability and more.
Boards could then disaggregate data on student achievement and engagement, school processes and student and staff experience and well-being to identify gaps students experience in opportunities that affect achievement.
This data can help boards understand and dismantle structures in schools that disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous and particular groups of racialized students, students marginalized by poverty and disabled students.
Boards can also create structures that reverse harmful patterns and pathways, and ensure new approaches are adequately funded and supported.
Community leaders must be involved meaningfully at every stage and data must be shared publicly and regularly.
The leaders we interviewed called for school boards to create structures to hold both the system and educators to account.
Accountability structures include arms-length advisory committees with representation from historically excluded communities, and repercussions for educators who don’t uphold the rights and dignity of students and families. School boards must demonstrate a clear commitment to using a rights-based approach to make decisions and respond to situations.
3. Rethinking parent and community engagement
Our research also examined the harm endured by Black and racialized parents who challenged racist educators, policies and practices in school contexts where educators claim they are concerned with the experiences of excluded families and respond to requests for change.
School leaders must ensure they are heeding parents’ experiences and acknowledging families’ expertise in school board decisions. They will also need to develop structures with accountability measures to prevent continued harm.
They must find concrete ways to value and support parent activism for racial justice and other forms of social justice, and to affirm this work as fundamental to parent engagement.
School boards need to support leaders in developing the capacity to respond to families and communities who benefit from the status quo and advocate against anti-racist reforms. They can do so by steadfastly committing to change practices that privilege groups that are already privileged.
4. Anti-racist leadership
Leadership is fundamental to transforming schools and boards. Models of leadership that don’t value anti-racist, anti-colonial and anti-oppressive skills, knolwedges and capacities replicate various forms of oppression.
We need to support leaders in undoing and unlearning the ways in which they have been socialized into leadership. The UnLeading Project launched at York University is a website and podcast series that has this aim.
Leaders we interviewed stressed there needs to be a fundamental shift in criteria for hiring, developing and promoting aspiring and established school administrators or leaders. The shift must put anti-racist and anti-oppressive competencies and capacities at the centre.
5. Recognizing school board limits
Our research shows there are limits to what school boards can do alone, in part because they operate within larger inequitable structures. Schools and school boards need partnerships with communities, universities, non-profit organizations, journalists and above all, with students, families and staff.
School boards need to realize that marginalized communities are fed up with performative acts and structural inaction.
They need to acknowledge educational institutions’ and schools’ histories of excluding historically oppressed communities, and their roles in advancing colonialism and white supremacy.
These are reasons why, in dialogue with communities, some school boards are supporting the development of alternate learning spaces in school boards and beyond. For example, the Urban Indigenous Education Centre in the Toronto District School Board “infuses Indigenous perspectives across the curriculum,” and “provides direct wrap-around supports to enhance the overall achievement of First Nation, Métis and Inuit students throughout the TDSB.”
We envision that in considering these approaches, perhaps boards will invest less energy in maintaining images of perfection, innocence, security and control, and instead welcome critique and acknowledge past and present failures. Perhaps they can come to view generative conflict as opportunities for transformation.
Vidya Shah Assistant Professor, Faculty of Education, York University, Canada
Gisele Cuglievan Mindreau PhD Candidate, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto
Nada Aoudeh PhD Candidate, Education, York University, Canada
Vidya Shah does consulting work with various school boards and organizations in Ontario.
Gisele Cuglievan Mindreau receives funding from SSHRC and OGS.
Nada Aoudeh does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.