Barriers for Black, Mi'kmaw students slowly coming down, say education officials

·4 min read

Changes are coming slowly to a system that has historically hampered the success of Black and Mi'kmaw students in Nova Scotia while creating opportunities for others, a legislative committee heard Tuesday.

Representatives from the Education Department appeared before the human resources committee to give an update on changes meant to improve outcomes for Black and Mi'kmaw students in the province and put an end to decades-old inequities.

"If you haven't experienced racism firsthand, you've more than likely benefited from it," Marlene Ruck Simmonds, the department's executive director of African-Canadian services, told committee members.

"So if it's creating barriers for others, that means it's opening up pathways for others. I know that's a very strong statement. But I need you to sit with that because that is the reality in which we are living in Nova Scotia."

Changes made

Last year, the Education Department implemented dozens of changes in effort to improve the school experience for Black and Mi'kmaw students, including:

  • Requiring all schools to examine disaggregated data when it comes to discipline and achievement.

  • Revising the curriculum for Black-Canadian studies.

  • Developing a mandatory anti-racism and discrimination course for all school administrators.

  • Working on a plan to address the disparities in access to technology for Black students.

  • Hiring more student-support workers.

  • Providing grants to schools to create culturally safe spaces.

There are roughly 7,700 Black students enrolled in public school in Nova Scotia. A disproportionate number are on what's known as individual program plans, or IPPs, that adjust outcomes and expectations based on perceived weaknesses.

Inspiring, engaging students

Ruck Simmonds said more consultation is happening with parents to determine whether IPPs are the best way to help their child succeed or if other supports are more appropriate.

"A Black brain is similar to a white brain, entering into the doors of education," she said.

"It's how are we inspiring and engaging students? And what are the learning opportunities that we are creating so that all children can be successful?"

A 2016 government review also found a disproportionately high number of students who self-identified as Indigenous were on individual program plans. Those students were 1.4 times more likely to have an IPP in at least one subject or programming area than non-Indigenous students, according to the review.

Jean Laroche/CBC
Jean Laroche/CBC

While the roughly 6,800 Mi'kmaw students enrolled in public school are faring better academically than their Black peers, the Education Department is not satisfied with the slightly better test scores.

"I've heard from system leaders who are saying they really believe it's not enough to ensure that kids get across the stage," said Wyatt White, director of Mi'kmaq services with the Education Department.

"It's really about holding account to say, when they complete their high school experience, was it meaningful?"

In 2018, a sweeping report prepared by education consultant Avis Glaze highlighted an "achievement gap" for Black and Mi'kmaw students as "a persistent and troubling problem that must be addressed."

Cathy Montreuil, deputy minister of education, told the human resources committee Tuesday the problem exists within the education system.

"This underachievement is not a reflection on the student, but on the system that needs to provide opportunities to learn and achieve," she said.

Jean Laroche/CBC
Jean Laroche/CBC

Montreuil is hoping the changes implemented by the department last year will start to pay off soon.

Research has shown it takes two to three years to see improved outcomes for kids once staff practices have changed, she said.

She said the changes are aimed not only at improving test scores, but ultimately making sure Black and Mi'kmaw students are happy and healthy at school.

"Make no mistake [the education system] knows how to raise scores. We could raise the scores of kids who [are] not achieving well and leave them devastated with respect to their well-being and the impacts of racism on them," she said.

"That's why well-being and achievement have to be woven together."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.