Some members of Toronto’s Somali-Canadian community are angry about recommendations from a Toronto District School Board task force they believe will “stigmatize” their children.
On Wednesday, more than 100 people — mostly mothers, but also young students and community leaders — gathered at a community centre in northwest Toronto to voice their disapproval over board task force recommendations that include more scholarships, mentors, homework help, more focus on Somalia in the curriculum and more teacher training.
“We don’t like the idea that we need a task force,” said Fatima Hirsi, a 19-year-old biology student at York University.
She added that she was born and raised in Canada, has done all her learning in Toronto schools and doesn’t want teachers to have “preconceived notions” that students of Somali descent are less capable than others.
“It should be that individual children get help (if needed).”
The 22-member task force, made up largely of members of the Somali community, was created in 2012 to address what the TDSB says is a 25 per cent dropout rate among students of Somali descent (about 10 points higher than the board average).
TDSB trustees voted in March to receive a report created by the task force, meaning staff are now taking a hard look at their recommendations to see if they are feasible, though nothing has been finalized.
Many in attendance Wednesday questioned the dropout number, saying the sample size was too small and students could simply be leaving to go to private schools or moving away. (Jim Spyropoulos, TDSB’s executive superintendent of equity and inclusive schools, told the Star the data pulled aren’t just “snapshots” but patterns over time.)
There was also criticism that the school board task force did not engage enough of the community in the process, and that the recommendations addressing issues such as over-representation in special education programs and high expulsion rates are too vague.
Haweiya Egeh, a task force co-chair, said one of the 23 recommendations specifically says the TDSB needs to look at why students of Somali descent are over-represented in special ed.
“This whole initiative was about ensuring that students have all the opportunity in the world to have options,” she said, adding those opposed to the recommendations are a “minority” and that the task force had eight consultations across the GTA to which everyone in the community was invited.
Ahmed Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali congress, reiterated Wednesday that he believes the recommendations are the wrong kind of help.
“Do you need to stigmatize and marginalize people to help them or can you help them within the system? … In the name of help you can actually do a lot of damage if you don’t do it the right way.”
On the issue of scholarships, he questioned why kids of Somali descent would need to compete for “B team” awards when there should simply be awards open to all students. “It’s lowered expectations,” he said, adding that the solutions have to be about “Canadian kids.”
“They (the TDSB) can’t tell us what the problem is, then tell us what the solution is and then bulldoze us into implementation.”