In the past, “private school” was usually associated with privilege and, often, a racially, socially, economically and ethnically homogenous student population.
Not so anymore.
Present-day private schools in Canada have evolved to reflect the diverse tapestry of the nation’s population. Fostering inclusivity, combating bias, and quashing discrimination has become paramount for private-school administrators, faculty and students alike. Formal Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) policies, practices and programs are now woven into the fabric of campus life to ensure all students—regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. — are welcomed, supported and encouraged.
“Schools, of all kinds, are a representation and reflection of the community they serve and are part of,” says Mahlon Evans-Sinclair, director of equity, diversity and inclusion at St. Clement’s School in Toronto. “They’re also their own communities. Therefore, being aware of which biases exist overtly—and more covertly—at both a wider societal and school-community level, is key.”
At many Canadian private schools, advancing inclusivity and cultivating an equitable environment starts with the administration, staff and faculty. “The EDI mandate is part of our strategic plan,” Evans-Sinclair says, “with intentional steps taken to ensure that both education and affirming inclusive practices are understood and enacted. At least two professional-development points of the year are dedicated to supporting efforts of anti-bias and discrimination, with take-away tips provided each time.”
For many private schools, an effective EDI strategy involves assorted components, which may include: the development and implementation of formal policies, the evaluation and revision of hiring criteria and practices, and the integration of EDI training into the onboarding process for all staff. The key? Putting EDI into action.
Michael Minicucci, principal of the Etobicoke campus of Blyth Academy, a network of private high schools across Canada, says that his school’s core values—which include the themes of diversity, acceptance and support—are always on display: they’re hung in the school’s entrance, ensuring they’re kept top of mind for everyone who walks through the doors. The school also hangs its Pride flag right in the front windows. “We begin each year with students recognizing and discussing each of these values,” he explains, “and we provide learning opportunities throughout the year to highlight them.”
To stay up-to-date on issues, concerns, solutions and best practices, private-school teachers and staff regularly take part in EDI-focused continuing-education programs and initiatives. “We include professional-development courses and safeguard training,” says Nicholas Catania, principal of Blyth Academy Mississauga. “Teachers also participate in weekly campus-climate meetings and individual staff debriefs on an ongoing basis.”
St. Clement’s also hosts an annual EDI conference, which is open to independent schools. “[It’s] responsive to the needs and interests of various constituents of the school community,” Evans-Sinclair explains. “We’ve hosted this conference for a number of years now, with the goal of encouraging sometimes-difficult conversations, exploring and delving more deeply into important issues, and providing an opportunity for schools to identify and lay out actionable equity goals.”
A well-informed faculty is then able to take that learning and ensure it cascades down to students, both inside and outside the classroom. “Our dedicated EDI curriculum—inspired by the Learning for Justice, Social Justice Standards—takes place across the school year and is targeted appropriately to all grade groups,” Evans-Sinclair says. “In this way, our students are exposed to a number of concepts about inclusion, difference and identity.” He says this approach supports the student’s ability to examine their own relationship to what’s being taught, as well as its real-world applications.
Maintaining open communication is important and, at Blyth, faculty and staff have an administrative “open door” policy, which encourages students to speak their minds freely about any issues of concern. “We prefer to have an ongoing dialogue with our students to help make each year represent the community that they would like to become,” says Minicucci. This can be especially important for international students, who may feel isolated due to language barriers, cultural differences or simply being so far from home. “Our international students receive direct teacher support in their classes to conference with constructive feedback and academic guidance,” Catania says. “As well as language-specific accommodations where needed.”
Creating a truly inclusive and welcoming school environment also relies on the student body embracing EDI, and private schools offer an abundance of programs, clubs and events to help students deepen their understanding—and support—of their peers. “Our student council has developed an initiative for Cultural Appreciation, where students host events such as fundraisers, luncheons and socials to help educate and raise awareness of various cultural traditions around the world,” says Minicucci, whose students have held fundraising events for issues such as Indigenous Truth and Reconciliation, and at-risk youth. “We believe that when students feel connected to each other at the campus, they can begin to feel connected to the larger community outside of our school walls.”
At St. Clement’s, students lead Alliance and Affinity groups such as the school’s Anti-Racism Committee, Gender and Sexuality Alliance, and Indigenous Affairs Circle. “It demonstrates the range of curiosity to commitment that students have about their own identities and those of others who may or may not share them,” Evans-Sinclair says.
Lee Venditti, principal at J. Addison School in Markham, Ont., agrees. “As a school, we believe strongly in promoting inclusivity and diversity, so students from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and respected,” he says. “Through various events, such as Black History Month, we encourage dialogue about different cultures, perspectives, and experiences to foster empathy and understanding.”
Empathy is, for Minicucci, also the key ingredient to nurturing an equitable, diverse and inclusive school environment. “[It’s] at the heart of everything we do,” he says. “We want our students to practice that daily, so that when they come through our door, they know that they are seen, heard and valued.”