Call for the setting up of an organization to assist Black parents in navigating the school system

By Lincoln DePradine
Professor Dr Carl James and parent Deveen Hunter

For more than two hours last Saturday at York University, a bleak and disheartening picture – well-known to almost everyone in the room and to millions more across Canada – was presented of racism, unfair treatment and other difficulties confronting Black students, and parents desperate to help their children succeed at school.

“It’s a systemic issue that goes generation after generation,’’ Tana Turner told the audience at the information session, with one parent recommending the establishment of a single Black organization to assist in interacting with the school system.

The event marked the launch of a series of eight “information sheets’’ titled, “The Engaged Black Parent: Navigating the School System for Black Student Success’’.

The material, according to its producers, is “designed to support parents to be partners in the education of their Black children from junior kindergarten through to high school.” The series offers tips on how parents can “engage with the teacher, why challenging suspensions is important, and what to watch for from the teacher’’.  As well, the sheets recommend that parents supplement their children’s education “with books about Black history and events that promote Black history, culture and achievements’’.

The series is co-written by Turner, an independent consultant in equity, diversity, and inclusion, and Professor Carl James of York University. The document emanates directly from a 2017 report titled, “Towards Race Equity in Education: The Schooling of Black Students in the Greater Toronto Area’’.

James led the report that covered the period 2006-2011. He found that fewer high school Black students than Whites “were enrolled in the academic program of study, which is the pathway to university’’; and just 25 per cent of Black students applied to, and were accepted, by an Ontario university, in contrast to 47 percent of White students.

Among other findings of the report were that that by the end of their high school education, 42 per cent of all Black students “had been suspended at least once, compared with only 18 per cent of White students and 18 per cent of other racialized students’’.

Presentations made at last Saturday’s York University event revealed that not much has changed since James’s report, which was compiled after consultation with 324 parents, community members, educators, school staff and trustees.

“When we did the consultation for the report, we heard the same messages over and over again from parents,” said James, the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York University. “These parents said they either had little or no knowledge of the school system, or if they did, they needed some prompts to look for in their child’s development and a list of items to raise with their child’s teachers and the school system.”

In addition to the “information sheets,’’ advice on how to navigate the school system was offered by Turner and fellow presenters Erica Okezie-Phillip and Natasha Henry, two parents with school-age kids; and Anyika Mark, a University of Toronto (U of T) student.

“Students don’t drop out of school. They’re being pushed out,’’ Turner said. “Parents are their children’s biggest advocate. They must be active participants in their children’s education and schooling.’’

Mark, relating her family’s experience with a younger brother, advised that parents should research the high school to which they plan to send their children, and also warned them against allowing teachers and administrators to make decisions with parents themselves not doing their own independent investigations..

Okezie-Phillip and Henry strongly underscored the importance of engaging trustees, principals, school council members and principals.

Henry, who is president of the Ontario Black History Society, recommended that parents become familiar with their school trustees, who depend on votes to hold their positions.

“Reach out to them if you have questions and concerns,’’ said Henry. “They’re there to serve on behalf of the children that we send to the public schools. That’s something that’s very crucial.’’

Okezie-Phillip added that it’s known that “a lot of White parents go straight to the trustees,’’ who intervene to address issues that are raised with them. “We have to be more strategic,’’ she said.

Jamaican-born Deveen Hunter, who has a child in Grade 6 in a school in Peel, proposed that instead of so many groups dealing with Black children’s

education, there ought to be a “unified organization’’ to help parents in their involvement with the school system.

James promised to bring Hunter’s suggestion to members of the advisory committee of the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora.

“We will have some discussion about it,’’ he told The Caribbean Camera. “I think it’s a very valuable suggestion, something that should not be dropped. But, of course, everything needs funding; everything needs some kind of a structure in order to make it happen.’’

Mark, who is in the Political Science and Caribbean Studies program at U of T, described Saturday’s event as “very useful’’.

“All the parents here are so involved in their children’s lives and it’s a step in the right direction,’’ she said in an interview. “I think that what we established was that there needs to be an overarching Black community collective that is working to help parents with advocacy.’’