How Black communities are teaching Black students

Going beyond the classroom with supplemental education initiatives

Black communities have always been part of the Canadian fabric, but their experiences and the systemic injustices they face have been largely ignored in publicly and privately funded education systems. Philip Howard, an assistant professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University, is exploring the ways these communities have embraced their own agency and created their own supplemental education programs. In doing so, they are contesting the erasure of Black contributions to Canada’s history and advocating for change to the inequitable conditions of public schooling.

As a Black person and a former public school teacher, Howard says he has seen firsthand the ways Canadian school systems consistently fail Black students. They are disproportionately subject to suspensions, expulsions and other disciplinary measures. They are overrepresented in special education streams and more likely to not finish school. And their history is rarely included in the standard curriculum.

“If it’s taught at all, it’s treated as an ‘extra’ chapter in a textbook, as though it’s unrelated to the rest of the book,” says Howard.

To give their children the chance to learn in an environment that respects their needs, many Black communities have created supplemental education initiatives, including summer and weekend school programs, homework clubs, and special events brought into public schools. In addition to correcting curricular omissions, these initiatives have worked to challenge overly harsh disciplinary measures and address holistically systemic anti-Blackness in education that begins in kindergarten, including establishing advisory committees to fulfil the educational needs of Black students.

Preserving institutional knowledge

Howard and co-investigators Erica Lawson (Western University), Isaac Saney (Dalhousie University) and Sam Tecle (University of Toronto) are using a SSHRC Insight Grant to look at the community organizations that have created these programs over the last century, the approaches they’ve taken, and their challenges and successes.

“These programs have been going on for a long time, but they haven’t been properly documented,” says Howard. “A lot of the records are stashed in someone’s basement—and a massive amount of institutional knowledge hasn’t been written down at all. It’s carried in the heads of key players who are getting older, so we want them to share their stories while they still can.”

Highlighting Black agency and leadership

Howard and his team are conducting their research in Montréal, Halifax, Toronto and London: cities that offer a range of program types at varying levels of development, influenced by unique local and provincial social and political contexts. In each city, the team has established a research reference group and maintains regular contact with local organizations to get community input on the information they want and the outcomes they’d like to see from this project.

The research, which will consist primarily of interviews with key participants and reviews of the available archives of these community-based initiatives, is still in its early stages and has been subject to delays due to COVID-19. But, Howard has already observed how interconnected many of the organizations are, influencing and evolving out of each other over the years. He hopes the work will culminate in a national resource or database that’s accessible to Black community organizations today and to future generations, so they can better understand what has worked in the past (and what hasn’t) and apply those lessons to their own supplementary education initiatives.

“My goal is to help Black communities survive and thrive within a system that has always excluded them,” he says, “and to highlight the agency Black communities have exercised to address the issues they face.”

Read more about Howard’s research, including previous SSHRC-funded projects, on the McGill University website.