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The new director of the TDSB has a plan for back-to-school

Colleen Russell-Rawlins has an impressive track record and no shortage of optimism. Will that be enough?

The new director of the TDSB has a plan for back-to-school
Photograph by Ebti Nabag

You became director of the TDSB in August. Has there ever been a more challenging time to take on that role? The pandemic is certainly a challenge, but it’s also an incredible opportunity to serve—to work with teachers, students, parents and unions to set priorities for the future. Obviously we’ve been focused on back-to-school, working with Toronto Public Health to make that as safe as possible. We’re much clearer on health and safety precautions than we were last year. We have processes in place to respond to individual cases and stop the spread.

For example? We have increased filter changes, and the ventilation systems are running longer to maximize air circulation. We now have HEPA filters in all occupied classrooms across the TDSB.

The ministry recently introduced a mandatory vaccination status disclosure policy for teachers and education workers. Are you in agreement? And should the same policy be implemented for students 12 and over? The TDSB is following ministry direction with regard to vaccination disclosure and is developing a mandatory vaccine procedure for staff, trustees and visitors. For the vaccination of students, that decision would fall to the province.

Many parents are worried their kids are suffering both academically and emotionally. What do you say to them? Good educators always start from what students know and build from there. If additional support is needed, we have the TDSB pandemic recovery plan, which centres students by allowing them to share the skills and knowledge they gained during the pandemic. It also offers differentiated supports for students who’ve had a difficult time, including additional small group literacy instruction and one-on-one meetings with a mental health worker.

What about parents who worry that little Johnny is too uncomfortable being in a mask all day? We do hear that, but we have to balance those concerns with safety. I can tell you that last year it was our kindergarten students who were the mask police, making sure older students were wearing masks properly.

On a personal level, what have you learned from this pandemic? That banana bread soothes any number of ailments. The pandemic has also afforded me the opportunity to reconnect with friends from high school and from earlier in my career and wonder why it took a pandemic to bring us back together.

Are we talking about walks in the park? Zoom wine nights? Zoom parties lost their appeal very quickly. Obviously it’s been a very busy summer for me, but I managed to fit in a trip to Sandbanks Provincial Park in Prince Edward County. It’s an annual tradition for me and my close friends. We pack a picnic, play badminton, enjoy the lake and laugh a lot.

There was a broad search to fill this role. Any idea what gave you the edge? I think my familiarity with the TDSB helped. After 30 years in education, I know many people in the community, which gives me a degree of credibility and trust. And I was the director of the Peel District School Board, where I employed successful strategies toward eradicating systemic racism. One of my goals at the TDSB is to remove barriers for racialized students.

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Did you experience those barriers back when you were a TDSB student? I had a couple of teachers who identified my interests in biology and chemistry and pushed me to pursue the sciences. I also had the pleasure of engaging in volleyball, band, cross-country and gymnastics. But other teachers underestimated me, and it became a bit of a game: how much could I surprise them through my academic achievement and effort?

You’ve said you want to lead an education system where students’ identities are respected. What does that look like? We know that the curriculum often portrays a very white, male, Eurocentric perspective. We are committed to opening that up so students can see their identities and their families’ lived experiences represented.

When I was in high school, it was a lot of fur trade. There was nothing about residential schools or other Indigenous history. Right. By developing resources for teachers, we hope to reframe the curriculum to ensure that Canadian history is Indigenous history. We still have a long way to go, but that’s where we start.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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