As part of the work to make schools more inclusive and ensure that all students feel physically and emotionally safe, the Safe and Inclusive Schools Department reached out to all students in Grades 7 and 11 and invited them to talk about their school experiences in the form of a survey. The questions that were posed in the survey examined social issues that intersect with feeling included in a school or a community, including 2SLGBTQ+, bullying, impact of COVID-19, mental health, poverty and racism, asking students if they had talked about any of those issues in the classroom this past school year. (See Appendix A). An open-ended question sought input from students about “what schools could do to make it a place where all students feel they belong?”.
In addition to the surveys that were sent out, eight focus groups were facilitated virtually by Safe and Inclusive Schools during the month of July, with groups of grade 7 and 11 students from Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk, to further explore the question “what can schools do to make it a place where all students feel they belong?”
In total, there were 552 responses to the survey; 276 students from Grade 11 and 268 students from Grade 7. Eight students did not identify their grade.
Student reported that it’s rare for issues related to 2SLGBTQ+ (73%) or poverty (70%) be discussed in class. There are also large percentages of students that report issues such as bullying, safe spaces, COVID-19, mental health or racism are never discussed in their classroom. (16%-24%). The chart below summarizes the frequency of which these topics are discussed.
Focus Group Results
A total of 95 students volunteered to be part of student focus groups, and out of that group 30 students participated, representing all three areas of the Board and both grades 7 and 11.
The following is a summary of the key themes and findings from the suggestions that students made in both the survey and during focus group discussions.
Students were clear in saying that their voices are important, and they want to be included at all levels: in planning, problem-solving and school practices. Having compassionate, non-judgemental, approachable adults who listen to their ideas and include them, especially when there are problems, was the most common theme.
Have a way to report issues anonymously
Students want to learn more about current issues and the barriers to equity and inclusivity, specifically the legacies of residential schools, mental health, the impact of slavery, poverty, and the history of the 2SLGBTQ+ community. Students are looking to adults to lead these conversations in a safe space, to help them be better prepared for a global community and to be better people.
Another common theme was that students feel that they are better prepared than staff to have conversations about current social issues. They want adults to take on the task of learning more about equity and inclusion to better prepare them to have genuine and meaningful conversations with students. The other important theme was setting expectations and boundaries to keep discussions safe in the classroom.
Ensure classrooms and schools reflect a wide range of student identities in their materials and practices. Providing opportunities for students to be teachers can increase a sense of belonging. Students talked about how powerfully positive it was to be seen, and how painful it was to not be seen.
Ensuring physical and emotional safety includes both building a caring community and responding effectively to situations when someone causes harm to another. Students had many ideas about how we can build cultures of belonging through our relationships and practices. Students also identified a need for adults need to respond more effectively to incidents of racism, homophobia and bullying, and center the needs of the target in those situations.
The Student Voice Project unveiled themes that are consistent with the best practices of culturally responsive pedagogy and serves to highlight the foundational and timeless concept of the importance of the relationship between students and adults in the school. Students are clearly asking us to discuss social issues in the context of their classrooms and are looking to adults to get prepared, be brave and lead these conversations. Students also would like Grand Erie to expand opportunities for student voice to have a meaningful impact at a school and Board level.
This summary provides suggestions for staff teams to consider as they reflect on both their individual and school practices. It is noteworthy to highlight that students see themselves as both learners and teachers and are looking for opportunities to work collaboratively as we build a culture of belonging in Grand Erie together.