Education summer institute focuses on student achievement

The York Centre for Education and Community (YCEC) hosted a successful three-day summer institute for the School & Community Engaged Education project (SCEE) Aug. 18 to 20.

A three-year collaborative partnership between York’s Faculty of Education through YCEC and the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the SCEE project involves four schools in the Jane and Finch community and one school in mid-Toronto that serves a significant number of Aboriginal students. The schools involved in the project range from elementary through to the high-school level. Over the past year, SCEE has been working with principals, teachers, students, parents and community members on programs geared towards more inclusive schooling and education to enhance the teaching-learning situation in these schools. The project, which started in September 2008, is designed to improve students’ school engagement and in turn their academic achievement through educational programs and research.

Right: Summer Institute participants engaged in three days of collaborative activities that included  workshops, presentations and film screenings.

Facilitated by project coordinators Donna Ford and Alison Gaymes San Vicente from York’s Faculty of Education, the objective of this year’s summer institute was to assess the past year’s program of activities and research, and to start planning a new program geared towards providing teachers and administrators with support that would promote community engagement and parent involvement, both key elements for ensuring student achievement.

More than 80 teachers, school administrators, community workers, parents, student mentors and guests attended the institute. Some came from as far away as the University of Washington (USA), Lund University (Sweden) and Ruaha University College (Tanzania). Also attending were students and faculty from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. The participants joined York faculty and project members in three days of activities that involved presentations, workshops, film screenings and debriefing sessions

York education alumnus Chris Spence (left), the new director of education for the TDSB, gave the opening keynote presentation. In his comments, Spence (BEd ’91) emphasized the importance of learner-centred education, personal interaction with students and school-community relationships (part of team-building) as critical building blocks in encouraging and enabling student success. He noted that effective education is for all students, not just the ones who are easy to teach or the ones who enjoy certain socio-economic privileges.

Participants also heard a similar message from Professor Joyce King (left)  the Benjamin E. Mays Chair of Urban Teaching, Learning & Leadership at the College of Education at Georgia State University. King started by drawing attention to social justice, one of the core values of the Faculty of Education at York University. She suggested that it is good to critically reflect on what it means to put social justice into practice.

With respect to her own work with teacher candidates, she spoke about the gains made when educators who work with students have a deep appreciation for their backgrounds, beliefs and values. She stressed the importance of cultural knowledge, the culture of the society where students live, and heritage knowledge, culture informed by students’ ethno-racial/national origin, and the importance of considering both as important in helping students attain academic excellence and cultural excellence. King said both are necessary if teachers are to engage effectively with their students.

She quoted a parent as saying that "a good teacher for her child would be one who teaches her child to hold her or his own and not forget her or his own [people/ community]."

During the next workshop, York Professor Leslie Sanders demonstrated the early stages of a curriculum in African Canadian literature that is being developed for delivery to schools across the province on the Ontario Research & Innovation Optical Network (ORION) network. Summer institute participants were introduced to passages from the text of Pourin’ Down Rain by Cheryl Foggo, who grew up on the Canadian Prairies. Participants discussed how the text might be taken up in all grades and disciplines such as English/language arts, history, social studies, geography and in other subjects.

In his workshop, University of Toronto criminology Professor Scott Worley (right) presented data that showed the representation of offences among young people. His results showed that the majority of young people are most likely to report their victimization to friends (67 per cent) and parents (44 per cent), much less likely to report to a school office (21 per cent) or to police (10 per cent), and that they are least likely to report the incident when it involves their friends. Wortley reminded participants that perceptions of youth and violence are often distorted, which has implications for the misrepresentation of high-risk neighbourhoods in the media.

Participants also heard from a panel of teachers who grew up and now teach in schools in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood and from a panel of community workers from the area. Members of both panels talked about the importance of connecting with the community and of building communication and supportive relationships with students, parents and community members. One panel member, Marilyn Eisenstat, who works at the community organization PEACH (Promoting Economic Action & Community Health), said that looking back to when she was a teacher working in a local high school, she wishes that she had done more to get to know the community. She noted that it would have been good to shop, attend events and do other things in the neighbourhood in order to give her a better understanding of the community in which she was teaching. In responding to the question of what had prevented her from doing what she now says is important, Eisenstat said that it did not occur to her at that time how critical this step was to supporting and engaging students in the teaching and learning process.

Anne Seymour, who is responsible for the Urban Diversity Strategy at the TDSB, talked about the importance of the SCEE project to the diversity strategy and welcomed the contributions that it has been making to the schools in the area. Similarly, Lloyd McKell, executive officer of Student & Community Equity, TDSB, voiced his support for the project. He noted that the education of students necessarily involves “creating relationships, forging connections, knowing our students, and treating children as part of our family.” As agents of change, he said we cannot afford to reproduce and reinforce the inertia that is present in the system.

Professor Carl James, director of the York Centre for Education & Community, thanked everyone for “their invaluable contributions and support”. In his closing remarks, the Faculty of Education’s Associate Dean Don Dippo (left) said that "he has been waiting for a conference like this at York University for a long time." Dippo praised the coming together of educators, students and community members. He highlighted that the conference was made even more significant by the enthusiastic participation of all involved, from faculty members, teachers and community workers, to parents and student mentors.