It’s been about six weeks since two new staff members were hired by the public school board to help better prepare Black students on their road to graduation, and the board says the positive impacts are already obvious.
The two graduation coaches for Black students Roxann Whittingham and Camara Edwards, came on board in February as part of a pilot project through the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB).
“Our pilot project is based on the historical patterns of inequitable outcomes,” said Irfan Toor, principal of equity, diversity and inclusion with the SCDSB. “There’s been research for more than 50 years that shows that whether it’s graduation rates, access to specialized programs or pathways open to students, there’s patterns of inequity that show Black students in Ontario and North America aren’t getting the same opportunities.”
“We’re responding to the needs that are out there,” he said.
Edwards, the graduation coach at Bradford District High School, has been working with youth for about 20 years. Previous to taking on the role with the public school board, he worked for Pathways Educational Services.
“I wanted to continue my work with Black students who may need additional support throughout high school,” he said.
Whittingham, the graduation coach at Nantyr Shores Secondary School in Innisfil, has 10 years of teaching experience. She has spent time teaching Inuit students in northern Quebec, and started the Black Education Empowerment Fund at Georgian College, a scholarship for Black students. She started the fund after doing research into graduation rates.
“With the upsurge of the Black Lives Matter (movement), I saw research showing disparities in how many Black students graduate and move on the post-secondary education. That’s where this started for me. I wanted to be a part of the solution,” said Whittingham.
Whittingham is an alumna of Georgian College herself, and can relate to the situation of being the sole Black student in a classroom.
“There were times when I would have cultural questions that I wanted to ask, and even though I was speaking English, what I said could be misinterpreted. The meaning I would have in my head from my background is totally different from somebody else because of cultural experience,” she said.
Building up self-esteem
Whittingham said one of the barriers she seeks to overcome through her coaching is the expectations she sees being put on children from a young age, and how that can impact what they believe to be possible.
“Sometimes, you see that prophecy being fulfilled. If somebody doesn’t expect you to do well, you shrink into that role,” said Whittingham. “Black students don’t have that self-esteem because people don’t expect you to do well.”
“I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘You’re the most intelligent Black person I’ve ever met.’ I don’t consider that as a compliment. That’s an insult to my Black race. Students get that,” she said. “They’ve never seen a Black teacher. They’ve never seen a Black engineer. When they can see somebody like me in a role like this, that in itself is inspirational.”
When students come to her office, Whittingham says she asks them about their interests and which schools they’re interested in attending, and then works with them to create a blueprint of which courses they should be enrolled in so they will be eligible to apply for those programs down the road. One of the major strategies she uses to coach students is to build relationships.
“If you don’t have that trust with students, you can’t really go anywhere. Just because I’m Black doesn’t mean every Black student is just going to run up to me. I start there. I stand in the hallways and say ‘Hi, good morning.’ I call them by name. I call parents. I tell them I’m here for them, in their corner,” she said. “So when I have to call students to my office to talk about them maybe not submitting assignments, I don’t get the wall. I genuinely care for them, understand their struggles and am there to help them on their journey.”
Edwards uses a similar approach.
“I listen to them and connect with their teachers to support them along the way. When parents come to pick them up, I’ll also introduce myself to parents. A holistic approach helps. We want to empower them,” he said.
Since starting in the position last month, Edwards says he’s now working with about 25 students with new students coming to him all the time. Whittingham says she’s now met with about 50 students.
There have already been instances in the first six weeks where the connections the duo are making move beyond school walls and into the community.
“In my first week of working here, I met two brothers who are from Jamaica. They just moved to the very-quiet Innisfil area from a busy area of Toronto. They were feeling isolated. When I met with them and told them I’m from Jamaica, I literally saw their body language change, to relief. We had some small talk about Jerk chicken and other cultural foods,” said Whittingham, with a laugh.
“Their faces lit up. At the end of the day, they went home and told their mom their whole school experience had turned around. She thanked me. She was also feeling isolated so I helped connect her to a local church group to also gain a sense of belonging. That sense of belonging and that connection piece is so vital for students succeeding holistically,” she said.
Whittingham and Edwards both say that although their job title says they’re coaches specifically for Black students, they would never turn any student away from accessing the services they provide.
“Even though I am a graduation coach for Black students, I am not going to turn down a student who is, say, Asian, because I find (minority) students are feeling more comfortable coming to me because we have commonalities,” said Whittingham.
The future of the program
While some other school boards in the Toronto area who are hiring graduation coaches for Black students are doing so through provincial grant programs, the SCDSB is funding its own pilot project.
“These are important initiatives, but sometimes people wait until they are told to do them. In my four years in this job, the growth of my department hasn’t been in response to something we’re being told to do by the ministry. We are taking the initiative and are acknowledging the need and importance of this work,” said Toor.
Toor says the school system, in general, needs to be more representative of society.
“Our society is very diverse, both visibly and invisibly. That’s one of the reasons why the graduation coach positions are so important. It’s helping us transition to that place where our school system becomes more reflective and responsive,” he said. “There have been changes already. We already have qualitative data about credits and intervening on pathways, even in five or six weeks.”
Daryl Halliday is superintendent of education with the SCDSB, whose portfolio includes equity and inclusive education strategy.
“This is something we believe is going to be a great success, with them becoming a key part of our secondary school teams,” Halliday said. “We believe it’s going to be a real game-changer.”
“Data shows provincially and nationally that there are groups of students that don’t graduate at the same level as other students. They don’t have the same opportunities in education. Black students are one group that stands out. We wanted to look at intentionally making an impact for them,” he said.
Halliday says preliminary data has been returned to the board on the success of the program and could point to more schools being added in the future.
“The early indications are that it’s having a really positive impact on our students and once we are able to collect the data... we would come back to the board and look at the potential for expansion,” he said.