New survey to ask Edmonton public students their race, ethnicity, gender identity

Kent Pharis, assistant superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools, says he hopes demographic data collected from a new survey will help the division identify how it can treat students more equitably. (Janet French/CBC - image credit)
Kent Pharis, assistant superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools, says he hopes demographic data collected from a new survey will help the division identify how it can treat students more equitably. (Janet French/CBC - image credit)

Edmonton Public Schools will ask more than 76,000 students to complete a survey this fall querying their race, religion, ethnicity, gender and Indigenous identity.

Students in Grades 4 to 12 will complete the first-time questionnaire, and students in Grades 7 to 12 will also be asked about their sexual orientation.

It's part of the division's commitment to be more anti-racist, spurred by advocates asking the school board to collect race-based data.

"Different students have different experiences, and one of the things we do know is that not all students experience success at school," assistant superintendent Kent Pharis told reporters on Friday. "Not all students feel welcome at school."

Nancy Petersen, a managing director with the school division, said after the board committed publicly to examining the racial makeup of its student body, they looked at school jurisdictions that already do this. They decided it would be advantageous to look beyond race and ethnicity, she said.

"If we want every child to walk through the door every day and feel welcomed and feel a sense of belonging, we need to have a better sense of who students are," Petersen said.

Schools can begin offering the survey starting next week, officials said. Teachers will first give students an orientation session on how to complete the computer-based questionnaire.

Petersen was adamant that school-based staff will not have access to the data, which will be stored in central division servers and accessible only by a small team.

But once the data is collected, analysts can use it to identify correlations, such as, how many Black students were suspended or expelled from school compared to their classmates or how many Indigenous students dropped out of school.

Parents can opt their children out of the surveys, and students can skip whichever questions they choose.

A letter to parents is available in 16 different languages.

Some Ontario school divisions have conducted such surveys for years, which helps them identify and address inequities in schools, Petersen said.

In 2020, Edmonton public was the first Alberta school division to commit to collecting the information.

School division walks a careful line

Expanding the scope of the survey has some critics.

Jibril Ibrahim, president of the Somali Canadian Cultural Society of Edmonton, was among those advocating for the board to collect and analyze race-based data.

This week, he heard from parents who were upset to hear of a survey asking about students' gender identity and sexual orientation.

He worries that parents who are uncomfortable with those questions will opt their students out of the survey, which could lead to an inaccurate account of students in some ethnic groups.

"We might not get the data that we need," he said. "It might be skewed."

Scott Neufeld/CBC
Scott Neufeld/CBC

The division needs that data, he says, because Black parents tell him their children are not always treated equally at school. One concern is when students are "streamed" into high school classes that don't meet some post-secondary entrance requirements.

MacEwan University associate professor in sexual and gender minority youth Kristopher Wells applauded the survey.

He said it's important to collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity in conjunction with other demographic information, because students who belong to communities that are less accepting of LGBTQ people may be even more vulnerable.

Research from other jurisdictions shows LGBTQ students are more likely to experience bullying and harassment and drop out of school, he said.

No one is forcing students to answer all the questions, he said.

Wells hopes that if students see schools make improvements in response to the data, more families will be willing to participate in future surveys.

"You want to be counted because your identity matters, and you want to be part of the solutions that hopefully this data will allow us to look at in more detail," Wells said.

Edmonton Catholic Schools asks students to self-identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit; indicate any country of origin and disclose their gender, spokesperson Christine Meadows said in a Friday email. Now they're talking about expanding that.

"This would include a robust plan on how we would use that data to better serve the individual needs of the students before we would consider proceeding with collecting individual demographic data beyond what Alberta Education mandates," she said.