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How GTA schools are teaching social justice
These five educational institutions are making equity a priority—in and out of the classroom
BY ASTRID VAN DEN BROEK
The Black Students Association (BSA) at Cawthra Park Secondary School gave 17-year-old Latavia Williams exactly what she was looking for and couldn’t find anywhere else—an education with a healthy side of social justice. “The BSA has given me belonging and community in my school,” says Williams. “It’s given me a foundation for who I am.”
While academics are the base of most secondary-education programs, schools like Cawthra offer a lot more by incorporating social justice initiatives into extra-curricular clubs or classroom lessons. Here are five GTA institutions that are educating students while keeping social equity top-of-mind.
Ursula Franklin Academy (UFA)
The academic and extracurricular programs at Toronto-based UFA are permeated with social justice principles. High school students, who wear uniforms as an act of equity, can join a number of clubs founded on the ideals of fairness and justice, including the Upstream Anti-Oppression Coalition and Students Against Sexuality Stereotyping. Meanwhile, on the academic side, kids can opt to take elective-style courses centred around community building and activism, such as Animal Rights: Inform and Act.
The Grove Community School
Like UFA, this elementary school in Toronto is founded on social justice principles and bills itself as Canada’s first public elementary school focused on environmental education, community activism and social justice. At this small school (which has roughly 135 students), kids are encouraged to challenge concepts, such as gender stereotypes, and study environmental sustainability in a framework that encourages anti-bias thinking. They also participate in events designed to help them build a better future for the planet, including Peace Week and the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Cawthra Park Secondary School
Only in its second year, Cawthra’s Black Students Association (BSA) has become a welcoming and positive space in this largely white school in Mississauga. Melanie Riley, the BSA teacher representative, encouraged the formation of the group after repeatedly hearing Black students report microaggressions they experienced daily—both at school and in the wider community—and feelings of displacement. The group meets twice monthly to discuss issues that are important to the members and holds special events, such as inviting a hairdresser to visit the school and teach students how to style Black hair. The group’s success has since inspired the formation of a Muslim Students’ Association at Cawthra Park.
Winchester Junior and Senior Public School
Social justice initiatives abound at this downtown Toronto school. While the school operates a social justice–focused club, its student council and Eco Club also play a role in coordinating charitable initiatives, including Jeans for Teens, Backpacks for Syria and, most recently, a campaign to collect much-needed items for residents of nearby 650 Parliament St., many of whom were left homeless following a six-alarm fire. While formal projects such as these take place regularly, many initiatives have started informally, based on something as simple as a child’s letter to the principal about an area of concern in the neighbourhood.
Milton District High School
This Milton-based school offers social justice as an area of study in its Specialist High Skills Major (SHSM) program. While students explore issues of local importance, the program also emphasizes national and global problems. Throughout the year, students can participate in a number of experiences designed to help them give back, from working with the Halton Multicultural Council and the John Howard Society to joining clubs such as Students Unite, which celebrates the school’s diversity.
How to bring social justice into your school
It doesn’t take much to create a club, or even a whole new program. “In a post-secondary school, it’s just a matter of asking a teacher to supervise your club—that’s all you need,” says Riley, the BSA teacher representative at Cawthra Park Secondary School.
That said, clubs live or die on teacher support, so if there aren’t enough staff resources at your school, you may need to try another approach. One option is to let the school’s administration know what your child is interested in doing, says Rita Tsiotsikas, principal of Winchester Junior and Senior Public School. “Approach your student council or your parent council with your idea,” she says. “Or write a letter to your principal—that’s also very effective.” After all, if a club isn’t an option for your school, your child’s idea may inspire a classroom project or lesson.
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