The principles of social justice, diversity and inclusion were just some of the topics broached by the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board’s Director of Education Sean Monteith during his talk on Friday evening at Prince Edward Learning Centre.
PELC staff, board members and community partners were in attendance to consider the ways in which those principles can be employed daily and the broader impact that education can have in making sure those same principles are realized.
Councillor Kate MacNaughton was in attendance and spoke about her experiences with PELC and what enacting the aforementioned principles means to her not only as an individual, but as a member of municipal government who has the ability to exemplify these principles internally and with community partners.
“I’m here representing Mayor Steve Ferguson, and I know he would want me to say how happy he would be to have been here. He appreciates all the great work that all of you do, whether you’re a learner, whether you’re a board member or whether you’re a staff member,” said MacNaughton. “From my perspective, as a member of this community, I love walking in this door and I get a really great feeling here. It’s those principles that they mentioned that stir me when I walk in here and feel welcome.”
MacNaughton also tipped her hat to what she described as a changing environment within the school board-one she noted as prioritizing children and youth above all else.
“When there are opportunities to see those principles alive and encouraged and given the opportunity to blossom then I see how it can translate to a municipal culture, which gives us the kind of thing I see at the school board right now. There’s been a bit of magic. From the outside looking in, there’s a little bit of magic happening at the school board, where we see the doors opening and we see some fresh winds blowing in,” stated MacNaughton. “And I am going to be watching, because I see the example before me of the courage to open the doors and make changes and I want to see that at all levels of institutional life. The more we see a critical mass of people who are really looking to make intelligent, well-thought out changes, the more opportunities we are going to have to give everyone that safe space, like you get when you walk in here and feel included and safe.”
Monteith brought a small arsenal of books for his visit to the learning centre. Each book, such as The Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth, by Alexandra Robbins and To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, were used as tools to discuss the importance of the principles up for discussion that evening.
“What I’d like to do is not make this about HPEDSB. What I’d like to do is talk about the themes that I was told would resonate here. I don’t want to make this a referendum about the school board. I will say this: I am very well aware, as the director, that there is a lot of work to do. I have no illusions,” stated Monteith. “What I would say is that I realize HPEDSB, as an organization, has a responsibility to our communities and our families. It has a corporate responsibility as a corporate citizen and community partner. We have a professional responsibility-which is why we exist. But, most importantly, we have an ethical and moral responsibility to provide public education for young people.”
Hailing from Kenora and having worked in Northwestern Ontario for many years, Monteith has a strong sense of equality and the need for advocacy, including for those who are marginalized.
In his previous incarnation, working up north for the Keewatin Patricia District School Board, Monteith believed prioritizing children and youth was key to interrupting cyclical issues such as intergenerational trauma, dependence and abuse that can prohibit youth from graduating high school.
“Who in our communities, or what institutions- even if they haven’t signed up for it or even if they aren’t willing to accept that responsibility-who is the best to stop it? In its tracks, stop it. It’s education. It’s us,” emphasized Monteith.
Stating that 90 per cent of Grade 9 students express that they want to graduate and only 75 per cent of them do, Monteith questions what happens to the 15 per cent of students left behind.
“My argument here today is that we in the school district, in HPEDSB, are now stepping up and accepting our responsibility that transcends what traditional education is about. Graduation is not about a diploma,” stated Monteith, “It is about the possibility of interrupting cycles of all those other things. And I’ve got the data to prove to you when a student goes across the stage with a diploma, there’s a sense of value in their life, and they see purpose. When kids don’t see value in life, we’ve got cause for concern.”
Education is the great social mobilizer and agent for change, said Monteith, adding that the school board needs to accept its inherent responsibility.
Monteith cited the County Food Hub that runs out of Sophiasburgh Central School. The Food Hub helps to grow, prepare, and distribute nutritious food.
To this end, the Director of Education describes the project as being an important tool for changing peoples’ lives.
“Why wouldn’t we (support the food hub)? That is the responsibility of our school board. That is who we have to be as a partner. So, again, education can be used for social justice and as an agent of change,” stated Monteith.
Though he realizes the challenges that lay ahead as Director of Education for HPEDSB are significant, Monteith has no doubt that the bravery and courage to affect positive change exists within the area.
On their website, the school board credits Monteith for having a proven track record of removing systemic barriers to level the playing field for students, enabling an equity of outcomes for all.
Some of the systemic barriers faced by students here are not unique to this area, stated Monteith, but are inherent to the design of public education in this province.
“Systemically, I think we need to make sure that decisions we make around programs in our schools are designed for all students,” he argued. “ I think we need to have a conversation about what equity really means. Does the strategic plan reflect a plan of equity? Meaning, that we are not just offering programs for all kids to be successful, but are we giving them all the belief that there is equity of hope, so they actually have the same amount of hope regardless of many things, such as socioeconomic background, cycles of dependency and trauma.”