Posted on November 29, 2007

Teach Us About Us: Students

Louise Brown and Kristin Rushowy, Toronto Star, November 28, 2007

Despite its staggering racial diversity—seven in 10 teens are not white—half the high school students in Canada’s largest board say they aren’t taught about different cultures in class, new research shows.

Yet two-thirds of kids say learning about their own race would make school more interesting, and almost half believe it would help them do better in school, according to a groundbreaking survey released yesterday by the Toronto District School Board.

In the most ambitious demographic snapshot conducted by a school board in Ontario, Toronto asked every student from Grade 7 through 12 at 289 schools highly personal—but confidential—questions about their race, sexuality, home life and disabilities on a written questionnaire done in class in 2006, as well their feelings about teachers, school, safety and how welcome they feel in class, in a bid to improve schools.

And while the majority of the 105,000 students said they feel safe and accepted in the halls of their schools, officials are troubled so many admit they don’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum.

“That’s something we feel very strongly about. When we read that, we were quite concerned,” said director of education Gerry Connelly, pledging the board will launch “an aggressive staff development initiative” to help teachers bring a range of cultural perspectives into class.

“That’s something that helps students feel, and be, valued in their school,” she said yesterday.

The numbers come as the board grapples with whether to open an alternative African-centred school for students who may feel overlooked in mainstream schools. Roughly 12 per cent of students identify themselves as black.

The survey was designed to help figure out which demographic factors pose roadblocks to learning—from race to gender, mother tongue to family income—so the board knows where to steer help.

Trustee Josh Matlow voted against conducting the survey, saying the board should be taking action, not collecting data. He called the results “interesting reading.”

“I don’t believe students are going to give us the full goods,” he said, especially on questions of sexuality.

“The survey was quite a hot topic when we did it in class,” said Grade 12 student Gerald Mak of Earl Haig Secondary School.

“Some of them wondered why their student number had to be left on if it was really confidential—but I understand why,” said the student trustee. “It was so we know where to make improvements.”

Mak is one of the 71 per cent of high school students whose parents were both born outside Canada—his are from Hong Kong—and among the 20 per cent of students of East Asian descent.

Yet he has been taught little about Asia, he said, except a little in Grade 10 geography. “We’re Toronto, we’re very multicultural. I strongly agree that we should learn more about different races.”

Despite concerns about school safety after the fatal high school shooting of Jordan Manners last spring, 81 per cent of students say they get along with others at school.

Of particular concern to the board’s equity chief, Lloyd McKell, are the gaps between home and school revealed by the survey: the fact just 56 per cent of grades 7 and 8 students report eating breakfast every day, or that 35 per cent say frequent distractions at home prevent them from doing homework.

“All of these are issues we need to probe deeply,” he said. “It suggests to us that there are relationships with the community we need to continue to build.”

Next week, the board will hold its first student forum, bringing in high school youth to talk to staff about issues affecting their lives.

In its meeting tonight, the board is expected to create a “student data advisory committee” of staff, experts and trustees to look at ways to use the survey results to help improve student achievement.

A similar survey will be given next spring to children from kindergarten to Grade 6, to be filled in at home with parents.

Connelly said the board will focus its efforts on students in grades 6, 7 and 8 because they tend to become disengaged before high school.

While it will be months before the board drills down far enough into the data to know which particular students face which barriers, Connelly said the board is “committed to raising the bar and closing the achievement gap. We have a lot of vulnerable students we need to work with.”