Elevating community voices to improve children’s success and well-being

How reducing inequities in early education creates an inclusive school system

From left to right: project co-investigator Patricia O’Campo, professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto; project lead Sejal Patel, associate professor, early childhood studies, Faculty of Community Services, Toronto Metropolitan University; and project collaborator Maria Yau, former research coordinator, Research and Development, Toronto District School Board

Photo: Sejal Patel

Schools play a significant part in children’s academic, emotional and physical development. This outsized role means they can reinforce existing inequities—but are also in a position to help reduce them. Sejal Patel, associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Early Childhood Studies, investigates educational inequities within communities of the Toronto District School Board. Her research seeks to reduce disparities, share knowledge, and inform practice and public policies to promote better outcomes for all.

“While there is a need to do more, there are promising and innovative practices happening within our school boards,” she says. “They have real potential to help disrupt inequitable systems and enhance social justice.”

Justice for marginalized communities

Patel’s mixed-methods scholarship on early life experiences, including education, social and community context, has been shaped by her intersectional lived experiences as a racialized mother whose family originally settled in Canada in a marginalized Toronto neighbourhood—circumstances that have brought deeper connections and meaning to her equity-focused research, teaching and service within the university and beyond.

Her research has investigated how an innovative school redesign initiative and neighbourhood redevelopment project affected children, families, teachers and community members in a historically marginalized Toronto neighbourhood.

Young student’s artwork at a school part of the Model Schools for Inner Cities initiative in the Toronto District School Board

Photo: Sejal Patel

That led to another project, funded by a SSHRC Partnership Engage grant in collaboration with the Toronto District School Board, which takes a closer look at the multipronged Model Schools for Inner Cities (MSIC) initiative. MSIC aims to reduce inequities and achievement gaps for students by making additional resources available to marginalized school communities. Patel is particularly interested in how the program helps reduce inequities in children’s educational success, and child and family well-being.

Through community-engaged scholarship, she collaborates with community partners to answer questions relevant to practice, service provision and policy. Through the research cycle, she has mentored numerous undergraduate and graduate students and provided opportunities for them to contribute to reports on reducing socioeconomic disparity through school-based initiatives. Overall, her findings highlight the importance of visionary social justice leadership and staff support at a local and system level. For greater equity, additional resources need to be put in place, along with a social justice-inspired curriculum, infrastructure for staff communication and collaboration, and ongoing and integrated professional learning opportunities.

“Having welcoming physical and social school environments, fostering a culture of care and trust, and encouraging parent leadership and advocacy is key to building strong family-school community partnerships,” Patel says. “All this can help schools cope with the ongoing, often unpredictable and changing external and internal challenges, and maintain and sustain any gains from equity initiatives like the MSIC.”

Partnerships for educational equity

Patel’s work is meant to have practical, usable results for the community.

“Our research underscores the pivotal role that school boards play in advancing justice in the education system,” she says. “But it also highlights that promising practices often remain siloed with very few opportunities for sharing.”

To counter this division and create greater opportunities for school boards to come together and share promising practices, she has recently applied for a grant to host an Ontario-wide school board symposium.

Ultimately, Patel hopes her work will help bring about educational policy change to reduce inequity and enhance educational success for children in elementary schools in the Greater Toronto Area, across Ontario and beyond.

Learn more

To learn more about Sejal Patel’s research visit, the Greater Equity in Early Education and Care website.