Opportunities and Challenges
for the WRDSB
We are at a moment in time where we have an opportunity to build a public education system that truly serves every student, and sets all students up for success in learning and in life.
We are at a moment in time where we have an opportunity to build a public education system that truly serves every student, and sets all students up for success in learning and in life. It’s the opportunity to create schools where identity and social location are no longer factors that determine outcomes for students. The Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) has set this as a goal, with the knowledge that this work will not be easy, but that it is necessary. This commitment is one that allows us to ensure public education serves all students, families and communities. It is a huge trust and one that we take very seriously.
This year has not been without significant challenges we have had to navigate. An October 2022 article in the Globe and Mail provided a snapshot of some of these challenges as a result of our work to prioritize the success of each and every student. WRDSB staff, Trustees and students faced hateful rhetoric, threats, acts of racism and persistent anti-2SLGBTQIA+ discourse. This came at us through all channels - direct messages, comments, emails and more.
We know these kinds of conversations and messages in public forums are harmful to the students and families we serve. The WRDSB Student Census, in which we heard from over 30,000 of the students we serve, gave us a more well-rounded understanding of who WRDSB students are. This includes approximately 3% of students who identified as Indigenous spanning 60 Nations, 10% identified as Black, one third of respondents identified as racialized, 15% as Muslim, 0.5% as Jewish, 13% reported annual household incomes of less than $40,000, 7.3% identified as having a disability or health condition, and 24% of those in Grades 7 to 12 self-identified with at least one 2SLGBTQIA+ sexual orientation. The hateful rhetoric and targeting that we face only further marginalizes students we know are already overrepresented in achievement and well-being gaps.
Despite this, we are committed to continuing our work to improve outcomes for all students. The opportunity ahead of us is one that will allow us to create a world class education system. We will maintain a focus on academic excellence for all students. We understand that our continued focus on the academic success and well-being of each and every student may continue to make the WRDSB a target for the kind of threats, racism and hate experienced in 2022. However, a larger and more considerable risk would be to not continue this work as it would mean the same students who have been historically, and are currently marginalized, would continue to encounter barriers and limitations in our schools.
There are those who would frame this important work as part of a “woke agenda", but we have seen tangible results, including an increase in graduation rates. It demonstrates how these efforts improve outcomes, experiences and learning for all students, especially those who we have not supported well in the past. This is the reward that comes with the risk of engaging in work we know will draw racist commentary and hate from those who would accuse us of being “woke”.
We saw this with the return of the in-person Black Brilliance Conference in November 2022. Students shared how these opportunities throughout their time in secondary school have allowed them to build relationships with students who have similar shared experiences, from across the WRDSB. It’s about ensuring that students feel welcome, supported and seen in their learning experiences.
We saw similar rewards for WRDSB students taking part in Smart Waterloo Region’s Global Innovation Management Institute’s (GIMI) Impact Program. Making use of their own initiative and lived experiences, they use design thinking to come up with solutions to real-world problems right in our community. Many of these projects focus on social justice issues, like providing gender-affirming clothing to students who identify as transgender, or how to improve the experiences of newcomer families to Waterloo Region. In the end, this provides students with the opportunity to build skills for the future, while they help make a positive difference for the world around them.
To be clear, by focusing on students who have been in the margins, we are creating a better public education system for ALL students - one where all students will be better off. We encourage people who may read or hear about what we are doing, to clarify with us directly on official WRDSB channels, as we know that some reporting is intended to inflame fear and create panic. The goal is that all children see themselves reflected, experience belonging and success in school because of the way our system works - not in spite of it.
Understanding the richness of students' lived experiences and that of the families we serve better prepares children for life in a global village - one which they will experience first hand. As a district, we know we will not always get it right, but we are committed to working towards it with the support of students, staff, families and communities.
Ultimately, while difficult, we know that we must continue to work with the end goal of creating a public education system where every child - regardless of identity or social location - is able to achieve their fullest potential. Director of Education jeewan chanicka clarified this succinctly for the Globe and Mail:
“Making sure that all kids can be successful is not a woke agenda,” he said. “It’s us, as a public-school district, caring about all kids.”