Diana Day, lead matriarch of the Pacific Association of First Nations Women, sees too many Indigenous students being “streamed” in the Vancouver school district and wants that to change.
“The school system is not set up to succeed for our youth, our children,” she said. “There is a lack of support, a lack of political will, a lack of understanding... discrimination and white privilege plays into it a lot. It’s very disheartening to see.”
Streaming is a practice where students, based on their perceived abilities, are encouraged by educators to choose either academic courses leading to post-secondary education or less rigorous courses that will prepare them for the workforce.
Critics have argued that streaming unfairly puts Black, Indigenous and other students of colour into applied learning tracks, limiting their future prospects and entrenching inequity in the school system.
A York University researcher found in 2017 that the process disproportionately streamed Black students in the Toronto District School Board into programs that didn’t lead toward university.
Up until this school year, Ontario required Grade 9 students to choose between pursuing academic, applied or essential courses in high school. Academic courses count towards university acceptance, applied towards community college entrance, and essential prepares students to enter the workforce immediately after graduation.
Black students were overrepresented in applied and essential courses compared to their white and student of colour peers.
The Ontario government’s plan is to end all streaming in Grade 9 courses by September. A deadline for removing streaming in Grade 10 has yet to be set.
British Columbia doesn’t have a formal streaming process. But educators can and do steer students towards less academic courses based on their perceived abilities.
For example, some students are pushed towards Workplace Math 10, a course that prepares students for college apprenticeships or to enter the workforce, rather than be encouraged to enrol in Foundations of Mathematics or Pre-Calculus 10, which help towards university eligibility.
In B.C., Indigenous students are overrepresented in special alternate programs that have a reputation of not leading to university. They’re more likely to receive a School Leaving Certificate, for students who don’t have the credits required to receive a high school diploma. And they’re more likely to be assessed as having a learning or behaviour disability than their non-Indigenous peers.
These stats apply provincewide, not just in Vancouver.
Outside of Indigenous students, B.C. school districts don’t collect race-based education data, making it difficult to determine whether Black students are overrepresented in less academic courses. While B.C. has made progress towards fulfilling a promise to start collecting such data, implementation is still a ways off.
But Carl James, the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York University who wrote the report on streaming in Toronto schools, has no doubt that Black students experience streaming in B.C. because it’s part of how Canada has always operated.
From residential schools to forcing Indigenous people onto reserves to immigration restrictions targeting people of Asian and African descent, Canada hasn’t grappled with its racist foundations, and that has ripples in the classroom today, he said.
“All school boards will have to start looking at ‘What are we not doing? And how do we explain the situation of the people in our school board that are not making it?’” he said.
“The Toronto board, yes, might be seen as an example. But it’s not isolated from the larger Canadian cultural context.”
A colonial narrative endures
Since June, the Vancouver School Board has made two announcements regarding changes to honours and gifted programs that it says will improve student access and equity, including phasing out math and science courses and shrinking elementary gifted education programs.
Honours programs, which were offered at two city high schools until they were phased out at the end of the 2021 school year, allowed students to complete three years of secondary math and science courses in just two years.
The aim, the district said, is to get away from streaming. And although it didn’t release any data to show how these accelerated learning programs cause streaming, the race-based numbers that do exist show an imbalance.
Last year in Vancouver, just 11 of the district’s nearly 600 students assessed as gifted were Indigenous. This school year, three Indigenous students are enrolled in the Multi-Age Cluster Classroom and GOLD programs for students assessed as gifted — though not every student who is gifted is enrolled in one of these programs.
In comparison, last year Indigenous students made up 11 per cent of the B.C. school population. And they represented over 40 per cent of students enrolled in alternate programs, which are designed to meet the needs of more vulnerable students. Students can graduate from these programs with a high school diploma, referred to in B.C. as a Dogwood Diploma. But alternate programs have a reputation of sending kids out the door with a School Completion (“Evergreen”) Certificate, which doesn’t count towards post-secondary acceptance.
The Tyee asked the Vancouver School Board how many Indigenous students in alternative programs leave with School Completion Certificates. But the district said the number is so small that it might identify students, breaching privacy protocols.
The Vancouver district is home to 23 alternative programs, and according to the district website, “in most cases” students referred to the programs must have assessed mental health or behavioural problems. Thirty-six per cent of Vancouver students in these programs identified as Indigenous last year. Provincewide, alternate program enrolment is 43 per cent Indigenous.
Indigenous students are also more likely to be categorized as having disabilities or diverse abilities, representing 14 per cent of such students in Vancouver and 22 per cent provincewide. Of those students assessed as having disabilities both in Vancouver and across B.C., more than half have a learning or behaviour disability diagnosis.
Jo Chrona, an educator and Indigenous curriculum developer who’s a member of Kitsumkalum Nation, says the overrepresentation in disabled categories is part of an overall “colonial narrative” of education that assumes a deficit in Indigenous students.
“Folks often [are] forgetting to ask, ‘What’s going on there that the school might be creating the circumstances where those learners do not feel safe and belonging?’ And that’s contributing to what’s being interpreted as behaviour needs,” she said.
Leona Brown, a member of the Gitxsan and Nisga’a nations who sits on the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, was frustrated that no one at her eldest daughter’s Vancouver high school seemed to want to help her learn until she was assessed as having a learning disability.
“Why do we have to have a designation? You could see she’s struggling,” Brown said, adding she initiated all contact with her daughter’s teachers about her learning problems. No teachers or administrators reached out to her.
“It’s a part-time job just advocating for my children. Which has led me on the path of Indigenous plants and foods and trying to decolonize a very old, white-based system.”
Brown’s daughter started struggling academically in part because she was overwhelmed by having to change classrooms several times a day, but also because there was more reliance on learning through reading versus learning by doing, compared to elementary school.
“I felt like she just needed the teachers to explain to her something if she was having troubles, like a math question. Show her how to do the math questions properly, and then she would be OK with it,” Brown said.
Brown, an Indigenous cultural facilitator, believes designations are so high among Indigenous students because of cultural differences between the white European and Indigenous teaching methods.
“Our culture has never relied on books and reading. What we relied on was our Elders speaking to us, showing us how to do something. Our Elders telling us stories teaches us about safety, and security and life experience,” she said, adding she knows that some Indigenous students do well in the current school system.
“To normal society, our kids are struggling, we’re having a hard time. But we just learn things differently. If we were taught the way we have been taught for thousands of years, then we wouldn’t have a problem.”
Last year, the provincial six-year graduation rate — students who graduate within six years of entering Grade 8 — was 72 per cent for Indigenous students, compared to 93 per cent for non-Indigenous students. In Vancouver last year, it was 66 per cent of Indigenous kids, compared to 92 per cent for everyone else.
Indigenous students also made up nearly 30 per cent of Grade 12 students who received a School Completion Certificate in B.C. that year, meaning they finished school but did not graduate.
World class education for who?
In 2008, Day, a member of the Oneida Nation, was an Indigenous education advocate in Vancouver, encouraging parents to apply to mini schools — enrichment programs that operate as a school within a school in 16 of the district’s high schools.
She thought Indigenous students would have a better chance of getting a good education in a mini school rather than in the alternate programs that many were being directed to.
But for many families, the barriers to getting into a mini school — which include a lengthy, student-driven application process that includes attending information nights, filling out forms, taking a standardized test and in some cases, doing one-on-one interviews with teachers — along with access to transportation to get to a school across town, were too much.
“Sometimes our families are financially challenged more than others and that can be a barrier,” Day said.
Her own son, then in Grade 8, was faced with choosing from a variety of high school programs that all felt culturally unsafe for First Nations students. Instead, he was talking about dropping out.
So Day began campaigning for an Indigenous mini school in Vancouver.
“An Aboriginal school of excellence was what I had in mind,” Day said, adding that establishing such a program would be the least the district could do to support Indigenous high school students.
“The school board parades itself as world class. But it’s not world class for my people,” Day said.
The idea was not originally Day’s, but dates back to 1995, the same year her son was born.
Day’s children had thrived at Grandview Elementary, a Vancouver school she described as “culturally safe” for Indigenous students. Even when the family temporarily moved to Burnaby, Day drove her kids to Grandview every morning.
But high school was a different story.
“We don’t have many culturally safe schools here for our children. Especially high schools, there’s none, nothing,” Day said, adding that even in schools with a significant Indigenous student enrolment, she’s heard stories of racism among school staff.
Day brought the idea of the mini school to Vision Vancouver, the newly minted municipal party that dominated in all areas of the 2008 election, including the school board.
Day, who had a connection to the party through then-trustee Ken Clement, said Vision told her the party and its school trustees were enthused about the project. Three years later, the school board announced a public consultation process with the Indigenous community about the mini school.
Led by Jo-Ann Archibald from the University of British Columbia, the community consultations discovered the local Indigenous community was more interested in a kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school than a mini school.
The school board opted to create an Indigenous-focused school at what was then known as Sir William Macdonald Elementary, starting with kindergarten to Grade 3 and adding an Indigenous focus to one additional grade per year.
“The overwhelming push was for a school that started at kindergarten, not just a high school, so that we would eventually have a K to 12,” said then-school board chair Patti Bacchus.
Now known as χpey̓ Elementary, the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm word for “cedar,” the Indigenous-focused school runs from kindergarten to Grade 7 but has stopped adding grades.
In an emailed statement to The Tyee, a Vancouver School Board spokesperson said the district still plans to expand the school beyond Grade 7.
“The district is currently focused on building a strong elementary cohort as a foundation and hopes to extend the program to the secondary level in the future,” the statement read.
The spokesperson added that students in all secondary schools can access Indigenous-focused courses like BC First Peoples and English First Peoples. If students plan on becoming a teacher after graduation, the Vancouver School Board has established a program where students can earn dual credits in high school towards the Indigenous teacher education program at the University of British Columbia.
Day, who would later co-chair the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council and run unsuccessfully for school board in 2017 and 2018 under the Coalition of Progressive Electors, said the fact χpey̓ Elementary stops at Grade 7 feels like a betrayal by the school district.
‘To privilege some and disadvantage others’
B.C. may not have a formal streaming system like Ontario, but as this series has explored, participation in so-called elite education programs — such as being assessed as gifted or attending a mini school — are typically based on knowing that the programs exist and having an adult push students towards that path.
Anthonia Ogundele’s daughter did not pass the mini school test. Talking with parents of kids in mini schools, Ogundele realized those students had opportunities — such as invitations to compete in a free math competition — that kids in mainstream schools did not.
“A lot of these different free programs, really unique learning opportunities, are often curated towards these high-achieving students, when it should be open to every kid,” said Ogundele, who created the non-profit Ethọ́s Lab to provide a Black-centred science, technology, engineering and math enrichment experience for youth.
But sometimes students who don’t have faith in their own abilities will self-select themselves out of opportunities too, she added. “Some kids will write it off and say, ‘Oh, I’m not smart enough for that.’”
Other times, it’s the schools themselves that push students away. York University’s James has heard of many instances of schools pushing out Black students in Canada.
In 2017, James, along with the African Canadian Legal Clinic and the Ontario Alliance of Black School Educators, released a report on anti-Black racism in the Toronto, Durham, Peel and York school districts.
Using race-based data from the Toronto district — the only one of the four districts collecting it at the time — and through consultation sessions with over 300 parents, students, educators, trustees, administrators and community members, the report concluded that anti-Black racism was impacting students’ education.
“The achievement levels for Black students were very low in terms of their achievement, high rates of dropout, high rates of suspensions and expulsion,” James said.
Forty per cent of Black students were taking applied courses, which only count towards college-level post-secondary entry, compared to just 18 per cent of other racialized students and 16 per cent of white students.
The report included testimonials from Black students who said they were pushed towards courses below their skill level. It also found less than one per cent of Black students were identified as gifted.
But it’s not just a matter of trying to test more Black students, recruit them into gifted or specialized programs, or even ending streaming, James said.
The entire education system — not to mention Canadian society itself — needs to change.
“Does the curriculum really talk to the experiences of Black students, racialized students, Indigenous students? And if it doesn’t, what does that mean? It’s not just the teacher but some of the tools that we give teachers,” James said, adding that discrimination against Black, Indigenous and racialized students is entrenched.
“The system has been operating all these years to privilege some and disadvantage others.”
‘You really have to look at the whole child’
Shannon Leddy, a Métis assistant professor of education at UBC, takes issue with defining student success as being purely about academic outcomes.
“What does it count if you can get straight As in everything, but you’re not able then to secure lasting friendships or solid working relationships?” she said. “You really have to look at the whole child.”
Leddy, who ran the Athena mini school at Windermere Secondary in Vancouver from 2012 to 2017, believes whole child education could be achieved for all students if the tools and benefits of mini schools and gifted programs — smaller class sizes, self-directed learning based on students’ interests, multi-age classes — as well as more learning on the land were how all classes operated.
“I would love to see huge changes to education in general, where we took both a humanities and humanistic approach, so that all learning would be interdisciplinary and cross-curricular,” she said.
Leddy believes the current system of siloed subjects doesn’t help students understand how math, English and biology, for example, intertwine in the real world. She acknowledged that creating a mini school atmosphere in every classroom would mean significantly increasing the province’s education budget.
Chrona, whose extensive resume includes teaching in B.C. classrooms for 15 years before going on to develop Indigenous education curriculums for the province and First Nations Education Steering Committee, agrees with Leddy’s view.
She also echoes James’s concerns about a white, Eurocentric curriculum ignoring the histories, cultures and realities of other groups, specifically First Nations that lived on these lands for at least 13,000 years before colonization.
“I would hope that there would be fewer Indigenous students in French immersion programs and more Indigenous immersion languages [programs],” suggested Chrona.
In B.C., 18 First Nations language courses have been approved by the ministry, but not all are currently offered.
Former Vancouver trustee Sadie Kuehn, the district’s first Black trustee, noted that Black students have a healthy enrolment in French immersion in B.C. — in part thanks to students’ families immigrating here from French-speaking countries.
But she said that school districts need to promote all programs of choice, such as French immersion, mini schools and gifted programs, to low-income communities, and Indigenous, Black and students of colour.
“If they operated from a place of saying that all students needed to be seen as having talents and skills which need to be nourished and encouraged, that would be the best model and approach,” she said.
A former French immersion teacher who spoke to The Tyee on condition of anonymity said students who are fluent in other languages should receive as much credit for their language skills as French immersion students.
“It’s interesting how we value French as a second language. It’s almost as if we forget that there are lots of kids, kids of colour, who speak a second language,” the teacher said.
In 2016, 30 per cent of B.C. residents had a first language other than French or English.
Kuehn also advocates for more racial diversity of school trustees, and more trustees with experience in the education system. Day wants to see an Indigenous student trustee in addition to the current student trustee position in the Vancouver district.
Districts must start diversifying staff at schools and school board offices too, Day said, including hiring Indigenous people for positions supporting Indigenous students, and fully implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which includes a right to education for Indigenous children without discrimination, and in their own language and culture where possible.
Day also wants the Vancouver School Board to establish an Indigenous advisory council, like the Central Okanagan and Prince George districts have, to provide transparency and oversight on how money is earmarked for Indigenous education.
Brown, who sits on the school board’s Indigenous Education Advisory Committee, advocates for the presence of Indigenous Elders in all schools to act as counsellors and educators.
She would like to see every school have a garden, too, where students can learn hands on about growing and harvesting food, while simultaneously improving their mental health.
“If there’s depression, anxiety, there’s scientific proof that if you get your hands in the dirt, it helps,” she said.
“I think it would relieve a lot of stress. And it would do a lot of learning, which is one way an Indigenous person could lead a classroom like that.”
Hands-on learning outside is one area where Brown has seen her eldest child thrive. Participation in environmental programs outside of school taught her daughter more about Indigenous plants and medicines than even Brown knew at the time.
“She mentioned 10 plants that she recognized and the benefits for them, on a field trip. And then she told me she got pulled in front beside the teacher helping her identify the plants,” Brown said.
“I was like, ‘You just facilitated like a plant walk’.... It made her really confident. She was so happy for the whole day.”
The Vancouver school district has made many recent steps towards tackling racism in schools — including but not limited to anti-racism training for teachers, developing an anti-racism strategic plan, adding “racism” and “acts of hate” to the list of unacceptable behaviours in the school and district-wide codes of conduct, and establishing anti-racism lead teachers in every school.
But sources told The Tyee there is still more work to be done in the district to eliminate systemic and overt racism.
Ogundele says parents, too, must realize the perhaps unintentional but still significant impact they have on shutting low-income and Black and Indigenous students out from educational opportunities when they support exclusionary learning programs.
“There are parents who will march with me down the street talking about equal rights, or whatever it may be, but also be the parents that will fight tooth and nail to ensure their kids are in a mini school or private school,” she said.
“Ask yourself: who’s around the table when your kid is in these accelerated and high-achieving programs? Who’s in the room and why aren’t the other [kids] in the room?”