Racial statistics toughest issue in 2004

Theresa Boyle
December 29, 2004

The thorniest issue the Toronto District School Board grappled with in 2004 was the collection of race-based statistics.

At a heated meeting in November, trustees voted in favour of asking staff to come up with proposals on how to pursue the plan as a way to address systemic racism that serves as a barrier to students in school.

Staff have been given the task of developing research proposals, in consultation with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, on how to track student achievement on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, mother tongue, income and place of residence.

They are also to come up with a proposed budget for the exercise and report back to the board's program and school services committee in March.

Consultation with parents, educators, administrators, and federation and union representatives is to follow.

The idea was proposed by Trustee Bruce Davis.

"Everyone wants to talk about race, but I've got to tell you, I'm very uncomfortable talking about race," he said. "But we've got to talk about it."

Davis noted that 10 years ago, the provincial Royal Commission on Learning identified a problem with students at the Toronto Board of Education and specifically asked school boards to deal with "collective underachievement."

The commission had identified problems with student achievement in the black, Portuguese and Hispanic communities.

"The only way we can change the way we do business is to talk about it," Davis said. "We've got to do things for these kids."

His proposal narrowly passed in an 11-10 vote.

Trustees opposed included Mari Rutka, who said she was worried about categorizing students on the basis of race.

"However good our intentions, we will be engaging in racism," she warned.

Rutka said she was worried the public release of such data would end up in newspaper headlines that read: "Black kids fail in huge numbers at school."

Arielle Prescod, a black Grade 9 student from Newtonbrook Secondary School, urged the board to do the study.

In response to Rutka's concerns, Prescod said: "Those comments are already there. People already say it. It doesn't make a difference to me."

She said discrimination results not so much from maliciousness but from ignorance.

Trustee Stephnie Payne, who is black, welcomed the collection of race-based stats.

"I may be privileged as a black, but my sister may not be," she said. "We want to put resources in place that would eliminate inequality."

Staff were also directed, at Davis' request, to prepare a report regarding the implementation of a summer student employment program that would provide at-risk students with incentives to stay in school. Staff will present the report to the program and school services committee next month.

Earlier in the year, a group of trustees proposed a controversial plan to collect race-based statistics to determine if there is a correlation between race and disciplinary measures. That idea languished at the committee level, although Keith Norton, who chairs the human rights commission, has said anecdotal evidence supports such a link.

Prior to amalgamation in 1998, the former Toronto Board of Education collected race-based statistics. School boards across the United States also collect such information.