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How are Calgary schools incorporating more anti-racism teaching and training?

Calgary's two biggest school boards are taking action to include more anti-racism training and teaching in their schools for the coming school year. Getty images

As the conversation continues about anti-racism teaching and training in Canada and around the world, some argue change can start in classrooms.

And in Alberta’s public schools, officials say there’s “room for improvement.”

READ MORE: Students lead charge to have more Black history taught in Canadian schools to fight racism

As Alberta Education dictates the curriculum taught in public schools, Calgary’s two biggest school boards have little wiggle room with regards to the outcomes teachers are expected to achieve, but both the Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District say they’re committed to bringing more anti-racism teaching to students in the coming school year.

“I believe that at all levels of the education sector, we can all do more,” CBE Chief Supt. Christopher Usih told Global News.

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“I cannot speak on behalf of the government, but I think that there’s always room for improvement — whether it’s by the school board level, or at any level.

“What I’m hearing from our students and members of our community is that we have to ensure that we are looking at ways in which we’re providing that inclusive, equitable and respectful places.”

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CCSD Chief Supt. Bryan Szumlas said parts of Alberta’s current curriculum are “fairly old.”

He said he hopes the government comes forward “soon with a new, revised curriculum for us to utilize here in Alberta” — one that better includes racism in the province and country.

“I believe they know this is an important issue,” Szumlas said. “And we would probably hope to see some improvements to some of the curriculum outcomes.”

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In an emailed statement, Alberta Education press secretary Colin Aitchison said the current Kindergarten to Grade 12 curriculum “addresses issues regarding race and racism by teaching students to value diversity, respect dignity, support human equality, while understanding history, culture, roles and responsibilities.”

Read more: Calgary city council unanimously passes anti-racism motion

“As early as Kindergarten, students explore respect and acceptance of others, and also discuss the challenges that groups face in creating a peaceful environment,” Aitchison said.

“Throughout the Social Studies curriculum, there is a strong focus on Canadian history, including issues related to the histories, cultures and contributions of Indigenous peoples and people of African and Caribbean descent to our province and country.

“The Kindergarten to Grade 9 Health and Life Skills and high school Career and Life Management provide opportunities to address racism by teaching students about making well-informed, healthy choices and developing behaviours that contribute to their well-being of self and others.”

Exposing young people to diversity ‘critical’

Along with learning about racism in history, Usih said it’s critical that students have an understanding of how to live, work and move forward in a world that is “increasingly diverse.”

“In the global context, whether we’re looking at the local economy or the global economy, the world is changing rapidly,” he said.

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“When students graduate from high school and move on to post-secondary and then move on… they will be working with people and interacting with… people from diverse backgrounds.

“It’s critical that our young people are exposed to that level of diversity and inclusion, because that is really the space where we are today.”

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Usih said it would be a “missed opportunity” if Alberta’s young people are denied an education that is based in inclusion and diversity.

Szumlas said the CCSD’s teachers and administrators want everyone in their schools “to be treated fairly and respectfully.”

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“We have an opportunity here to change the lives of children and families as we go forward together as a society,” Szumlas said.

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“So let’s take advantage of this opportunity.”

Listening to students, families, staff

The CCSD said listening is key to determining the right steps to move forward with creating a more inclusive environment in its schools, with Szumlas saying they “want to go slow to go fast.”

“We don’t want to make any missteps and so what we’ve done is we’ve created a committee that is representative of many different races,” he said.

That committee has come up with a thought exchange question that’s been be sent to staff, and will eventually go out to families, essentially asking: “what are the most important things to consider as we continue to address and dismantle discrimination and racism in our community?”

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The committee is expected to meet this week to go over the responses and get an idea of next steps.

“On our first gathering of ideas is, please help define what racism is so that we all have a common understanding of it. And also what is systemic racism mean?” Szumlas said.

“And in there, I’ve also noticed that many of our teachers, they want to learn more about how to incorporate anti-racism into the curriculum.”

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The CCSD would like a comprehensive plan to be ready by September when students return to classes.

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Usih said the CBE is committed to taking action to see more anti-racism attitudes and teaching in its schools come the fall, adding it’s been listening to and learning from feedback from community members.

“That action requires us to take a look at, again, our practices and listening to what our students are telling us and what our families are telling us,” Usih said.

“And then making sure that in any one of our schools or workplaces, we’re being very clear: there is no room for racism or discrimination in any one of our schools or workplaces.”

As the school year is over, Usih said much of that work will happen in the fall for the CBE, but right now, a student advisory council is gathering experiences, stories and input from students at schools across the city.

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He said he’s also had conversations with staff about how incorporating anti-racism training into professional development.

Read more: Raising an ally: How to talk to your child about the death of George Floyd, anti-Black racism

“The best approach to doing that is recognizing that this can’t be just a one-time workshop, that the way you you create sustainable change is to ensure that this is embedded within the the the professional learning that we currently offer,” he said.

The CCSD is also exploring ways of including more anti-racism training in its professional development, adding teachers have asked for it.

Alberta curriculum under review

The government of Alberta launched a review of the province’s public school curriculum in August 2019, however it’s not known whether any new materials will be ready for educators this fall.

According to Aitchison, Alberta Education “will have more to say on curriculum timelines in the near future.”

Read more: Alberta government cancels partnership with teachers’ association

In the mean time, both Calgary school boards have said their teachers are encouraged to include racism education wherever they can in their lesson plans.

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“Certainly, we’ve heard the complaints around the curriculum that have been raised,” Usih said.

In the coming school year, Usih said CBE teachers will be given resources that will allow them to incorporate learning on Canada’s history of racism and the recent discussions that have ignited around systemic racism, adding “it’s important” they do.

READ MORE: Panel reviewing Alberta curriculum suggests schools ‘balance’ lessons about climate change, oilsands

“Curriculum isn’t a factory,” according to Szumlas.

“Teachers get to use their professional judgment on what activities they create to teach the curriculum, what resources that they want to utilize to teach the curriculum.”

As part of the curriculum review, Alberta Education appointed an independent panel to identify areas the school system should focus on.

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In its report — which was endorsed by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange in January 2020 — the panel recommended making sure First Nations, Metis and Inuit perspectives are included in the new curriculum, and that the curriculum “reflects the diversity of Alberta’s students,” but it doesn’t include any mention of Black perspectives or history.

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When asked about whether Black history will be incorporated in an updated set of curriculum, and how, Aitchison said he couldn’t speak for how the panel came to its conclusions and recommendations.

“However, it is important to note that the panel’s recommendation ‘to reflect the diversity of Alberta’s students’ recognizes that future curriculum must be inclusive of all cultures and races,” Aitchison said.

“Alberta’s future K-12 curriculum will include Black history and perspectives, and will also continue to address concepts, topics and issues related to anti-racism, particularly in social studies and wellness education.”

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