Report on academic streaming brings back painful memories for black students schooled in Toronto

Report on academic streaming brings back painful memories for black students schooled in Toronto

When Adrienne Harry was a grade 12 student in Toronto, she was told by a guidance counsellor in a one-on-one session on career paths she should consider pursuing something other than university.

Never mind that Harry had good grades. 

"My family highly values post-secondary education so there was never a question in my mind that I wasn't going to go," Harry told Metro Morning on Thursday.

"I was expecting from this session that she would advise on what school I should apply for, what program I should be looking at. But instead, it was a lecture from her telling me that university was not the place for me and I should consider working with my hands."

Harry, 31, now a writer for Exclaim! magazine and University of Windsor graduate with a bachelor of arts degree in sociology, said she was reminded of that painful experience this week after a news story on the findings of a York University report.

The report, based on data from the Toronto District School Board from 2006 to 2011, said black students are being encouraged to take applied instead of academic programs of study.

Led by York University professor Carl James, the report followed consultations with 324 parents, students, educators, administrators in Toronto and surrounding Peel, York and Durham regions. It used data from the Toronto District School Board.

"In an odd sense, it was comforting because it validated my own experience, but it was also disappointing to see my experience wasn't unique," Harry said of the research.

She expressed concern that students are being encouraged "to stray away from realizing their full potential" and wondered if racial bias, which she described as covert and subconscious, is at work. 

Looking back on her own experience with her school counsellor, Harry remembered being "baffled" by the suggestion that university wasn't the place for her. 

"I remember leaving the session in tears because, at 17, I felt my whole world had ended. Lucky for me, I had a philosophy teacher and a great group of friends who basically told me to ignore the counsellor's advice and encouraged me to apply. Had it not been for them, I wonder about where I would have been today."

At the time, Harry assumed that the guidance counsellor was an expert and must have know what she was talking about. But the school official didn't know her personally and hardly glanced at her transcript. Years later, Harry wonders what prompted the lecture.

"Looking back now as an adult, I wonder whether there was racial bias involved," she said. 

Harry said it wasn't the first time that her intellectual abilities were questioned by school officials. When she performed extremely well on tests, teachers would ask her if she was getting extra help.

In high school, she received the highest score in the school on the grade 10 literacy test.

"I was highly skilled in French. I used to go to a French immersion school before high school. I would blaze through French tests and get near perfect or perfect scores every time," she said. "There was a lot of questioning or undermining of my abilities."

Other students have taken to Twitter to share their stories of being #streamedtofail.

According to the report, participants said black children begin kindergarten with ambition, confidence, excitement to learn, and high self-esteem, but are "gradually worn down" by the attitudes of teachers towards them and the education system in general.

The report says educational streaming, a policy in which students are grouped based on ability, was supposed to have ended in 1999, but TDSB data shows that black students continue to be directed towards essential and applied programs of study and away from academic courses, more so than white and other racialized students.

Between 2006 and 2011, it found that 53 per cent of black students were in academic programs as compared to 81 per cent of white and 80 per cent of other racialized students.

In that same time period, it found that 42 per cent of all black students have been suspended at least once by the time they finish high school.

"Black students face an achievement and opportunity gap in GTA schools," the report concluded.