New student advocate program launched to help Black families navigate Ontario education system

·3 min read
The launch event for the new advocate program was held in front of Queen's Park on Friday. Patricia Falope stands in the centre of the image, wearing orange, yellow and green.  (Jessica Ng/CBC - image credit)
The launch event for the new advocate program was held in front of Queen's Park on Friday. Patricia Falope stands in the centre of the image, wearing orange, yellow and green. (Jessica Ng/CBC - image credit)

When Patricia Falope's daughter was in Grade 7, her teacher decided she should be moved to applied math.

Falope disagreed.

An early childhood educator, she "knew that if she went up the applied path, it would limit her choices."

So Falope stood strong and objected to the move, ultimately winning out and putting her daughter on the road she's now on — towards a university education.

"It was extremely important for her self confidence. So more than academic outcomes, that children get the sense that they can be whatever they want to be … is important knowledge to have," she said.

Falope is the founder and CEO of the Early Childhood Development Initiative, one of a number Black-led organizations now contributing to a new program that seeks to give Black families in Ontario a greater ability to advocate for their kids.

The initiative comes after multiple studies that show many Black students in the Toronto area are shunted into applied programs that are not designed to help kids get to the post-secondary level, and that Black children make up a high percentage of students expelled from schools in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).

The Student and Family Advocate program is being funded by the provincial government, and will see 30 or more advocates across the province available for families to call on if they need support.

The $6-million program, which was was announced this past March, will run for three years. The program is also one of the demands laid out by a group called the Parents of Black Children, which led a march this past August demanding equity in education.

Ivan Arsovski/CBC
Ivan Arsovski/CBC

According to a news release, advocates will "eliminate barriers and act as a neutral third party, outside of the system, who can express the unique needs and challenges faced by African Canadian families."

"It makes such a difference, it really does. When families go to meet with school boards or authority figures, they quite often feel very intimidated," said Kemi Jacobs, executive director of the Delta Family Resource Centre.

Jacobs says that having a student and family advocate present can change the balance of power in the room, and lead to more thoughtful responses from authority figures.

She says the need for the program comes out of the vastly different experience Black children can have as they navigate the school system.

"The statistics have shown that Black children in the school system are disproportionately punished and treated badly. We have dozens and hundreds of instances where police are called and [kids] are being suspended," she said.

CBC
CBC

In 2017, a report found that a large number of Black students in the GTA were being streamed below their abilities into applied instead of academic programs.

A separate report that same year found that almost half of TDSB students expelled over the previous five years were Black.

The new program is one of several grassroots and governmental responses to systemic issues in the school system.

Other steps being taken include the creation of a reporting tool for racism in the school system, and a pledge to end the practice of academic streaming.

Jacobs says the hope is that students and their families feel empowered to speak out about the barriers they're encountering.

"If it feels wrong in your gut, it is wrong, and you need to talk to someone," said Jacobs.

"Talk to your parents, talk to your friends, and talk to the student and family advocates."

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.

CBC
CBC
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