2/2013
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Improving educational outcomes

The Toronto District School Board and the Somali community aiming at a common target.

The Somali community has been a large and growing community in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for over 20 years. As a majority refugee population during their initial arrival in the country, Somalis experienced many issues within the education system that led to poor educational outcomes. A lack of remedial support and unaddressed trauma and stress were just a few of the issues that affected Somali youth and their families.

Currently, the Somali community in Toronto can be described as more than an immigrant community. Indeed, the majority of the Canadian youth of Somali descent (approximately 83 per cent) studying within the Toronto District School Board (TDSB, Canada’s largest and most diverse school board) are Canadian-born, however their educational outcomes have not improved relative to earlier arrivals.

As a response to this achievement gap, the Task Force for the Success of Students of Somali Descent was convened by the TDSB. This group has been working since January 2013 to identify the barriers to success facing Canadian students of Somali descent within the TDSB and to develop recommendations to address these issues. Indeed, the drop-out rate has been pegged at 25 per cent for Somali youth within the area, which is a staggering statistic. 

Our group consists of TDSB alumni (now young professionals), parents, teachers and leaders in the community. Our task as a group was to identify the issues leading to the unfortunate reality that our youth are facing and as former students who have experienced some of the same barriers in the system, we felt that many of us were in a unique position to engage in this topic effectively. Our process has been thorough, constructive and most importantly, inclusive.

Our work began with a review and discussion of quantitative data that was provided to us by TDSB. Here we learned more about the various factors that are potential contributors to the gradual disengagement and ultimate early leave from the school system of Canadian students of Somali descent. It was during this meeting that we made the commitment to engage with the larger Somali community in order to facilitate and integrate their voice into this process.

The Regent Park consultation was attended by a large number of concerned community members.

As part of the community engagement process, we planned and executed five separate community consultations around the city – one in the East-end (Scarborough), two in the West-end (Etobicoke), one in the downtown (in the Regent Park neighbourhood) and another that engaged Somali-Canadian educators. This was in order to engage the community and obtain their thoughts as to why Canadian students of Somali descent were facing such barriers to graduation. In all, over 400 community members attended these consultations and provided input. The qualitative data from these consultations formed the basis of the recommendations that the task force developed.

Once the recommendations were developed in draft form, our group went through a process of vetting these recommendations with different individuals and organizations with significant knowledge of the education system and different issues facing students within the system.

This work has culminated in a set of about 24 recommendations that fall into four separate categories: 1) Early identification & Intervention, 2) Communication & Understanding, 3) Encouraging Cultural Representation & Competency, and 4) Accountability & Public Access. The below table outlines some highlights from the recommendations.

Categories Highlights
1) Early Identification & Intervention
  • Further investment and expansion in youth intervention programs
  • Additional homework support linked directly to school curriculum as well as mentorship programs
  • Students should be given the opportunity to move into the academic stream when entering high school – Expansion of bridging programs between Grade 8 and 9 key to shore up skills
2) Communication & Understanding
  • Knowledge mobilization and transfer for parents in order to provide them with info on resources and skills
  • School councils be provided with additional resources to outreach to parents of Somali descent and provide them with practical support
  • Somali Student conference
  • A charter developed in plain language on IPRC/IEP process and translated into Somali
  • Resource guides and additional supports for educators to support students of Somali descent; make available via TDSB’s central teacher resource library (TIPPETT)
  • Further review of factors leading to over-representation of youth of Somali descent within Special Education as well as suspension/expulsion rates
3) Encouraging Cultural Representation & Competency
  • Establish Somali Heritage month
  • Employment (i.e. supply teaching opportunities) and/or volunteer opportunities be made available for individuals of Somali descent
4) Accountability & Public Access
  • Advisory committee to monitor implementation of recommendations and provide support
  • Results of Parent/student census (disaggregated by school and ethnicity) be made public
  • School performance be made public and monitored – particular focus on the outcomes of students from diverse backgrounds
  • Superintendents monitor the interpretation and implementation of the Safe and Caring Schools Act & data on suspensions & expulsions be disaggregated by school and ethnicity

In closing, as members of the Task Force on the Success of Students of Somali Descent, we were given the tremendous responsibility of distilling all of the energy and wisdom shared with us over the past months of consultation into a comprehensive package of recommendations that reflect the collective best thinking of Toronto’s Somali community. We firmly believe that a good education is the foundation from which all other positive things in life grow, and that this foundation is the right of every student in the TDSB. The thing that has motivated task force members throughout the hundreds of hours involved has been the great potential in the youth of our community, and it is our hope that this process has been an important first step to ensuring that this potential is realized.

Haweiya Egeh

Co-Chair, Task Force for the Success of Students of Somali Descent.

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Photo: Marja Tiilikainen