Restructuring our schools starts with our students

Addressing systemic inequities in education requires approaches that put young people first

Written by Isaiah Albert-Stein, Opinion Editor
Design by Zoe Dubin, Design Editor


I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, attending public schools that received Title 1 funding from the federal government. This funding indicated that at least 40 per cent of students qualified for free lunch, which also meant our school received additional government support. Despite this support, the disparities across districts were stark. The local community unfairly characterized our public schools as providing low-quality education and fostering violence—a stereotype that stemmed from the fact that the majority of the student body was students of colour. I learned from caring, talented teachers among a diverse group of friends and peers—I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world. Still, growing up, my friends and I saw that the suburban school districts around us achieved better test scores, purchased new academic materials and sports equipment, and sent more students to elite colleges and universities.

Public conversations around inequity often label high-need public schools as "inner-city," a racialized euphemism that broadly paints inequity as a result of unfortunate geography rather than decades of racist policies such as redlining, segregation, and unequal resource distribution. The pervasive notion of "underfunded schools" to explain the "achievement gap" fails to acknowledge how these most directly affect racialized and high-poverty communities, regardless of school budgets or resources.

Distance learning in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic widened achievement gaps and exposed the deep inequities of education systems in the U.S. and Canada. When schools moved online in Mar. 2020, I was working at a public elementary school in Washington, D.C., for the AmeriCorps program, City Year DC. I watched as our students, many of whom already dealt with attendance issues, health problems, or behavioural challenges, struggled more than ever before to engage with learning online. Even when they could participate in class, technology access was an issue for many families, and elementary school students were unfamiliar with Zoom and online learning tools.

Today, the condition of public education is as fraught as ever—in part as a result of the pandemic. The situation in Montreal and Quebec is no exception. Fédération Autonome de l’Enseignement (FAE), an organization comprised of nine Quebec teachers’ unions and 65,000 teachers, went on strike for 22 days at the end of 2023. The strike resulted in a collective agreement which includes a 17.4 per cent pay increase over five years, more teachers in classrooms, and more classrooms overall. Still, the deal passed by a 5-4 vote among the nine unions; Quebec teachers are disappointed that the province isn’t doing more to support them so that they can better provide for their students.

Students are the heart of the education system. To better serve public school students across North America, we need to address how factors such as racial injustice, housing insecurity, language barriers, and a carceral school system impose further inequity in the classroom. To provide a more just future and more opportunities for generations to come, we must allow young people to express their needs and expectations, and then to build from a student-first framework.

‘An equilateral triangle’: Student connections with school and with the world at large

Grade school students only spend half their day at school. When they arrive in the morning and enter the classroom, their lives outside of school don’t simply vanish; their activities and interactions since leaving school shape their experiences throughout the school day.

Lauren Watler is an educator with teaching experience in both public and charter schools in New Orleans, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., who currently teaches a class of fourth graders in the D.C. Public School (DCPS) system. In an interview with The Tribune, she described the relationship between students, parents, and teachers as an “equilateral triangle.”

“We’re literally the points in the triangle […] we’re the points that connect. If one of the lines or one of the points is off, there’s a disconnect,” Watler explained.

Her analogy emphasizes students’ agency in navigating the education system as one piece of their daily lives. As one “point” on the triangle, students have a significant stake in their own education. But parents—and more broadly, a student’s support system outside of school hours—and teachers, counselors, social workers, and other adults have the means to influence how students experience learning and express their own agency.

‘Systemic issues and pillars of oppression’: Students and the inadequacy of support

When children experience issues such as financial struggles, housing and food insecurity, or language barriers—especially Black students, Indigenous students, immigrant students, and students of colour—it often manifests in academic or behavioural struggles when they attend school.

Sarah Lauritsen is a school counselor at a predominantly Black, Title 1 public school in the United States. She expressed to The Tribune that trauma is a significant factor in the work that she does with students.

“A lot of those systemic issues, a lot of those pillars of oppression, really impact our students in the day to day, and how they function and [...] interact.”

Unlike the United States, Canada and Quebec do not systematically collect race-based data for school boards. This lack of widespread data collection limits the scope of smaller institutional studies, yet research still reveals that racialized students face the same kinds of inequity and segregation as American students. The Lasalle Multicultural Resource Center, a Montreal non-profit, collected data from 2021 to 2023 on Black students’ experiences in Quebec schools. They discovered that Black students are more vulnerable in educational settings due to police presence in schools and racially biased school practices, and that they are regularly moved to segregated classes separate from the broader school community.

Lauritsen describes how in-school and out-of-school suspensions recreate systems of oppression that police students of colour.

“There’s a lot of pressure to hand out these punishments and hand out this discipline, and I think [members of our school] team do a really good job of pushing back, shaping the way that we think about and talk about the consequences that we have for students [...] obviously, there’s a lot of room to grow.”

Nanre Nafziger, assistant professor in McGill’s Department of Integrated Studies in Education (DISE), studies Black social movements and Black students’ experiences in school. She is a core organizer with École Sans Police, a Montreal group that advocates against police in schools and carceral systems of education.

“I think Quebec really needs to update and transform a lot of things in the schools in terms of pedagogy and in terms of discipline,” she proposed in an interview with The Tribune. “The old systems are still there [...] a lot of punitive measures that make children feel guilty for bad behaviour instead of more positive transformation or approaches to teaching.”

Students thrive in institutions that recognize and teach about their cultures, but instead the Quebec curriculum denies Black students, Indigenous students, and racialized students the opportunity to see themselves reflected in their education. Nafziger criticized the negation of Black and Indigenous history in the current Quebec curriculum, saying, “You’re basically telling the story of white settler colonialism as the de facto history of Canada.”

This lack of cultural representation mixed with the strict French-language policies in Quebec, such as Bill 101 and Bill 96, creates additional hurdles for non-francophone students. DISE associate professor Susan Ballinger, who studies bilingual education and language acquisition, explained to The Tribune that anglophone students receive little support in adjusting and allophone students receive none at all. The Faculty of Education students she works with struggle to provide multilingual instruction under these conditions.

“[One of my students talked] about situations where they got in trouble for speaking a little bit of English with a seven-year-old who had just arrived in the country, who didn’t know [where to go] in the hallway,” Ballinger recounted.

‘Distrust runs so, so deep’: Parents, barriers, and generational inequity

Lauritsen described a recent meeting with a mother, where she had to broach the difficult conversation of suggesting that her child move to a specialized classroom.

“I don’t know if [it’s] specifically our school, the staff at our school, or just the larger school system in general, but her distrust in us runs so, so deep,” she recalled, expressing that parents’ distrust toward school professionals is valid. “I think a lot of it just comes from wanting to protect them, honestly, and I can understand why.”

Public narratives of educational inequity often wrongly place the blame for behavioural issues or low academic performance on absent, uninterested, or antagonistic parents. These accusations disregard marginalized families’ perspectives of the school system and narrow the conception of what role a parent or family serves. The educators I spoke to shared stories of students whose parents held several jobs, were incarcerated, passed away, or didn’t have the time or means to drop them off at school.

Some students changed custody frequently between their parents or other relatives, lived in foster homes, or had to serve as parents themselves for younger siblings and cousins. Yes, these family and home situations affect how students engage with school, but that doesn’t mean that the parents don’t care—every discussion I had reflected how most parents want the best for their kids.

In Quebec, strict French language laws add an extra barrier for some Indigenous or immigrant parents who may not feel comfortable speaking French. Ballinger argued that parents lack the opportunity to advocate for their children when they don’t have proper support for learning French, and teachers refuse to or are unable to communicate with them in a more comfortable language. “Newcomers, people of colour [...] it’s so many ways that they’re disempowered at that level,” she shared as she related her own anxieties as a parent who isn’t a native French speaker.

In addition to the numerous challenges parents face, the school system often reinforces limited perspectives on the parent-child relationship, failing to account for diverse family dynamics. DISE assistant professor Jayne Malenfant does advocacy work with teenagers experiencing homelessness and studies education and housing justice. In an interview with The Tribune, they pushed back against misconceptions that most homeless youth don’t have relationships with their parents. They also pointed out how centring relationships with parents can exclude queer and trans youth and other young people who have disconnected or fractured relationships with their families. Students dealing with homelessness and living on their own may get punished for calling to excuse their own absences, or students living with their families may be scared to seek help in school for fear of being separated from their parents and support system.

‘Knowing someone had that offer for help was a game changer’: Empowering teachers to address carceral school systems

The work of being a teacher isn’t easy, but that hard work is an essential part of providing for students. “That’s what keeps me going; that’s what keeps me motivated,” Watler emphasized, “Student achievement—I want them to do well.”

Yet teachers need more than just their dedication to students to keep them afloat through the challenges of an unequal system. Watler pointed to teacher retention as a marker of a positive environment, setting her current school apart from others where she’s worked. A large contingent of veteran teachers can build a network among themselves to more quickly address student needs, stay on top of issues, and take on the many day-to-day responsibilities of teaching while still prioritizing students.

A general sentiment among the educators I interviewed was that the high teacher turnover rates at high-need schools result from a combination of low salaries, overworking due to understaffing, and a disconnect between teachers’ training and the actual demands and expectations of the job. Nafziger stresses that, in addition to better pay and smaller class sizes, developing intercultural competencies is essential for supporting students. “When you have these old methods of discipline and then you have [teachers] not having the competencies to deal with cultures, that definitely leads to a more negative impact on children [from diverse backgrounds].”

Cultural competency is especially important when the realities of the job don’t reflect the practical training.

“The way that it’s framed in grad school, and in theory, you just go out and you do [social justice and advocacy]. And that’s not the reality of the situation,” Lauritsen reflected.

The abundant responsibilities falling on school staff leave little room for implementing progressive practices from professional training. Lauritsen is optimistic about how restorative justice initiatives at her school can better serve students but argues that deeply entrenched punitive approaches make it hard to implement anti-oppressive practices.

Well-supported and well-trained teachers are necessary for student safety and growth. A school system that works for students is made up of many teachers who have the skills and potential to be a trusted resource for students with substantial needs. Malenfant says that even if students struggle to advocate for themselves or seek support for their needs, having those frameworks in place makes a difference: “I’ve talked to so many young people who said, ‘I didn’t take advantage of it, but just knowing someone had that offer for help was a game changer.’”

‘Radical Imagination’: Looking to students for a way forward

In our interview, Malenfant talked about the concept of radical imagination—the act of encouraging, rather than suppressing, imagination among young people and imagining together radical possibilities for the future of education. Radical imagination itself undermines, as Malenfant put it, the “inevitability of this system.”

Discussing the teens they work with Malenfant said, “Often when they’re trying to go to school, and their friends are dying on the street, and they’re trying to eat, and they’re just trying to navigate a system that is completely failing them, they have no choice but to imagine something else [...] we have a lot to learn from young people’s imagination of what could look different.”

Students know what they want from school and how they can best learn—the key for educators is to give them the tools to better express what they need from classes and from adults in the school building. One practice being implemented today to build upon students’ voices is translanguaging, a theoretical framework first developed by Columbia Teachers College Professor Ofelia García. As Ballinger explained it, translanguaging is the process of “drawing on all of [students’] language knowledge to help them learn,” encouraging students who speak two or more languages to speak with whatever words best express them, but even more so to collaborate with other students who share their linguistic background.

Translanguaging, and other innovative approaches to student learning that educators are implementing today, have the potential to lay the foundation for a future of student-centred educational practices that could exist in a restructured system that addresses inequities head-on and incorporates students’ desires.

“You can’t change things without talking about what’s wrong with them,” Malenfant proposed, “[…] but then going past that to imagine what things could look like differently is really exciting.”

For now, we can look at how students everywhere make the existing school system work for them, regardless of the obstacles. Lauritsen points to students’ joy and love—when their support systems in school are working and even when they’re not—as a big part of what draws her to her job.

“Seeing those small things on a daily basis, seeing the smiles, seeing them show up for their family, for their friends, for their community. Those are probably my highlights. The small interactions, the small wins.”