Over 100 souls seeking guidance on how to become a DDSB employee gathered to hear senior school board officials discuss their efforts to diversify through the hiring of more black staff members.
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The gathering attracted a great deal of media attention. Local news outlets came out in force to capture footage and quotes of black professionals looking to break into the school board. Television cameras captured attendees sitting knee to knee in cramped quarters with engaged DDSB representatives. In small groups, they discussed the hiring process, how to tailor a resume for submission, how the seniority lists work, and much more. People stood in long lines for an opportunity to have their resumes reviewed so they could successfully navigate the long, laborious and often frustrating school board hiring process.
Eleanor McIntosh, the principal of Ajax High School and chair of the Durham Black Educators’ Network, told CBC News the obvious motivation behind the info night. “We know that there’s a lack of diversity in our schools,” she said, “and we want to make a change about that.” While recent demographic trends have led to a rapid increase in the number of visible minority residents in the eastern GTA, it’s clear the lack of diversity McIntosh was decrying was not amongst the students but within the staff – in particular, the men and women on the other side of the desk.
Detailed demographic information about DDSB staff was gathered through the school board’s first-ever internal census, conducted in late 2017. The review found that 89% of all DDSB staff are white, while just 3% are black. Compare this finding to local data from the 2016 Canadian census. Blacks make up 16.7% of the total population of Ajax, the highest in the country. In Whitby, 8% of the population is black – the same as for Durham region as a whole. This is higher than in Ottawa, Windsor and Halifax, and nearly as high as Toronto’s 8.9%. Even though one in five DDSB staff members are from racialized groups – an increase of more than 200 per cent in the last two decades – they lag behind in their hiring of black employees across all employment groups.
Statistics about student demographics are not yet being gathered, but the province has signalled all Ontario school boards will soon be required to report this information. The DDSB announced that it will create a data collection process over the next 18 months or so. Until that time, one can only speculate upon the true ethnic make-up of the student body in any Ontario school board. However, it is fair to intimate based on available information that there are not enough black teachers to instruct, inspire and motivate a steadily increasing population of black students in Durham. What can be done about it?
At the meeting, despite all the positivity about the school board’s plan to attract more black staff, it is obvious that hiring more black teachers is not as simple as holding a few interviews then sending out offers of employment. Systemic barriers exist that many attendees found hard to set aside in favour of sunny optimism at their employment prospects.
Within the teaching ranks, it is hard for new applicants to have a true shot at landing a newly-opened position. Jobs are offered first to supply teachers on the occasional teaching list. The longer a person is on the list, the more seniority they have, so their needs have to be addressed first. Brand-new teachers start behind everyone else who has been substituting for longer than they have been listed. Some supply teachers have been on the list for years. A desire to create greater racial and ethnic diversity in the teaching ranks takes a back seat to seniority under current provincial regulations.
Given the widespread advertisement of the Pickering info session, black educators from neighbouring communities came out in force to find out more details about potentially switching school districts. Unfortunately, and again as a result of provincial regulations, when a teacher moves to another school board they must be on the occasional list before they can be offered a position. As an added kick in the pants, they cannot carry over their seniority from their previous job in order to be placed higher on the list. They start at the bottom of the barrel and compete with younger and/or less experienced educators on an equal footing. This bit of information visibly deflated some people who had high hopes of local nirvana – the relatively affordable real estate, shorter commutes and diverse teaching environments that Durham region has to offer.
Some Durham school board officials spoke positively about an impending wave of baby boomer retirements. I admit that I rolled my eyes. This development has been rumoured in educational circles for nearly twenty years. I’m sure I was not the only Gen Xer in the room who was instantly skeptical. Every underemployed teacher between the ages of 35 to 45 can tell you stories about long-predicted generational turnover that has yet to fully materialize. Without question, there will eventually be a wave of retirements across the province. A person can only teach for so long. Until then, newer teachers have to wait their turn for a full-time job, and mid-career teachers have fewer avenues to advance up the ranks, thereby creating space for educators with less seniority. No short-term policy instrument or ready-made administrative solution exists to address this structural inflexibility within the educational system.
So as participants left with internal contacts, application information and strategic advice on how to secure employment with the Durham District School Board, I felt internally conflicted. I believe the DDSB senior leadership has their hearts in the right place. It was obvious to me that they are very serious about their equity initiatives, not just for black staff but for the overall diversification of their employee complement. Initiatives of this sort can only succeed with champions pushing for change at the highest levels of the organization. The Durham school board has this asset working strongly in their favour, and I applaud them for it.
In addition, it’s obvious that the time is now if someone wants to join the school board. The population of Durham region grew by 6.2 per cent between 2011 and 2016, well ahead of the national rate of 4.6 per cent. All of Durham’s school boards are expanding the capacity of their schools to match growing student demand fuelled by population growth. In short, the community needs more teachers. Combined with an anticipated increase in staff retirements, the school board will need to hire more people in all lines of work for the foreseeable future.
However, the antiquated hiring process that rewards longevity over merit and values seniority over revitalization across the Ontario educational system is a formidable obstacle to incremental, much less fundamental, systemic change. Until the province, school boards and education unions come together to fix this outdated method of staffing our schools, there’s little chance the ethnocultural composition of our educational professionals will ever adequately reflect the students they purport to serve.
In the meantime, it is still incumbent on black educators and supporting professionals to find ways to win the game they are forced to play in Ontario’s schools. We can’t change anything if we keep on choosing not to participate. I know that my attendance in Pickering on April 19 is forcing me to reconsider my attitude with respect to finding employment within the education system. I think others in the room felt similarly challenged. Only time will tell if the community and the school board can successfully rise in tandem to meet the challenges ahead.
Greg Frankson is a public speaker, community activist and award-winning literary artist who lives in Whitby, Ontario. He is also an Ontario Certified Teacher.