In today’s social climate, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are top of mind in nearly every realm of life, work and play, including the academic environment. Schools across BC are responding with inclusive curriculum, staff training and by ensuring safe spaces are intrinsic to their school communities.
But this is not easy work. Bringing students, staff and families together despite different worldviews and finding time in an already full curriculum to include this material can be challenging. It requires time mindfulness and all hands on deck. Here’s how some of BC’s premier independent schools are breaking new ground in DEI.
Stratford HallStratford Hall, a gender inclusive independent school in East Vancouver, has staff committees for DEI, SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity), Indigenous Perspectives, and Neurodiversity that oversee development of DEI principles in the K-12 programs.
“We are an International Baccalaureate school, and DEI principles strongly connect to the curriculum framework,” says Sukh Sandhu, learning support specialist at Stratford Hall. “We have a very diverse student and family population, and we need to create space for all identities represented within our community.”
Meg Chamberlin, senior school principal, says the community members are encouraged to share their stories and engage in open dialogue and exploration around identity in their advisory/community block time, supported by a robust GSA (gender sexuality alliance) and DEI student groups.
“The K-12 DEI movement has been initiated to shift mindsets, behaviours and practices towards more equitable and inclusive systems,” Chamberlin says. “DEI demands we create more meaningful and purposeful commitments and action plans to include the equity needs of a diverse school community. We aim to ensure all community members feel a sense of belonging.”
An important challenge independent schools face is that the BC curriculum and schooling system is embedded in a colonized model of education. “It can be difficult to ensure resources across all subject areas provide positive representation of marginalized identities,” Chamberlin adds. “It is also a challenge to assess and address how structural systems reinforce lack of opportunities for marginalized identities.”
Glenlyon Norfolk SchoolGlenlyon Norfolk School, an IB school in Victoria, has begun using data collected through the Middle School Development Index surveys and from internal parent surveys in the fall and the spring to measure if students feel a sense of belonging and safety when they are at school.
“If students can see themselves in their learning, that can strengthen their sense of belonging and help ensure each person in the community has a voice,” says Cole Carlson, deputy head of school – academics. “It means GNS can continue to be a safe place for all our students and staff.
For example, younger students, in Nature School, learn about connections to the land and Indigenous principles, and grade ones focus on a Unit of Inquiry based on the theme: We Are All Connected, which examines family, culture, traditions, celebrations, similarities and differences.
“In our Individuals and Societies classes, students learn through historical contexts relating to race, culture, gender and sexuality awareness,” Carlson says.
Another challenge can be finding the time to add these meaningful things into an already full curriculum. “There is an overwhelming amount of content that could be included, and we want to be able to offer it in an authentic way that does it justice,” Carlson says. “It takes time to do this well.”
MULGRAVE SCHOOL, THE INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL OF VANCOUVER
Mulgrave SchoolHead of School John Wray says Mulgrave School in West Vancouver is committed to ensuring every student achieves their personal best and fully embraces, among others, the values of global citizenship, inclusion, respect and empathy.
“Our goal is to ensure that all our students, whatever their talents, backgrounds, identities, and intersectionalities, are supported to feel safe, seen and have a strong sense of belonging in their personalized journey to achieve their full potential in education and life,” he says.
Implementing these initiatives authentically and across the curriculum and school community means all hands must be on deck.
To do this work, people require self-reflection, openness, authenticity and a willingness to be vulnerable—both in their personal and professional lives.
“There are difficult questions about how and why we do the work, and we have to be a part of those discussions while not letting them derail our efforts,” Wray says. “We always come back to our values and goals. Initiatives such as the appointment of a Director of DEIJ, creation of DEIJ curriculum standards, and courses and workshops for faculty, parents, and guardians also help us meet this challenge as we are being deliberate and intentional.”
UNISUSUNISUS is an IB World School, and that forms the lens through which it approaches diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. “We approach DEIB with a desire to understand and celebrate differences within our community, while recognizing and valuing the things we have in common with each other and the rest of the earth,” says Dr. Beverley von Zielonka, Head of School.
The connection between belonging and the IB’s mission is to create a better world through education is clear—and the power in diversity manifests in measurable ways, with students coming at a problem in many different ways.
As a home away from home for students from 11 different countries, UNISUS staff know that diversity makes the team smarter and more innovative, but it can also make things more complex.
“Diversity gives us an opportunity to collaborate effectively through our differences, acknowledging and respecting multiple world views and experiences,” von Zielonka says. “We challenge and empower our students to build intercultural understanding and respect, celebrate similarities and differences while realizing their potential together.”
Southridge SchoolAt Southridge K-12 independent school in Surrey, DEI isn’t enough. The team prefers the term ‘pluralism’ because it means recognizing, valuing and respecting individual differences.
“Being at a school that embraces pluralism, our differences are not seen as threatening,” says Darren Jones, assistant head of school. “They present opportunities to learn from one another and enrich our lives and community with new perspectives and ideas. Every person is free to express the different identities that contribute to uniqueness. Everyone belongs.”
As school decisions are made, everyone uses their PERC lenses, which include considering plural perspectives; environmental implications; potential risks; and impact on the school community.
“Diversity begets inclusion,” Jones says. “It’s beyond a moral imperative to do this work at Southridge, as there are truly educational benefits to having a diverse and inclusive community.”
Southridge students have demonstrated agency and leadership in many related areas, including uniform updates, cultural event planning and community presentations. Staff Pluralism initiatives include sitting on the Pluralism Committee, supporting students with Clubs, and facilitating curriculum that shines light on age-appropriate issues related to diversity, inclusion, equity, accessibility, neurodiversity, and social justice.
“Traditional educational models with desks in rows pose a challenge to this work,” Jones says. “The idea that the teacher or the resource holds all of the knowledge (or the “correct” knowledge) is outdated and not in line with the values of Pluralism.”
This is why Southridge embraces discussion-based learning across its K-12 curriculum, specifically in the senior school, where it uses the Harkness philosophy of teaching.
“When you walk into any of our grade 8-12 classrooms, you’ll see students and a teacher seated together at a large, oval table engaged in conversation,” Jones says. “Harkness teaching is directly reflective of the values of pluralism.”
Aspengrove SchoolAspengrove in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island is an IB school where international mindedness is fostered in everything the school does. “We respect and explore other cultures every day, from JK3 all the way to grade 12,” says J.O. Eriksson, MYP teacher & Indigenous education coordinator. “For example, we have units that explore belief systems, immigration and ways of being around the world.”
This intercultural celebration continues year-round and in all grades, and in 2022, Aspengrove updated its grade 10 curriculum to include Indigenous learning into Literacy Studies and New Media courses.
“We create a sense of value and belonging for students identifying as Indigenous with different action pieces, such as learning greetings and plant identification using basic words in Hul'q'umi'num, reading books written by Indigenous authors, learning about tradition and culture from Indigenous artists and presenters, and acknowledging Indigenous Ways of Learning and Being in each classroom,” Eriksson says.
One challenge is that all schools have a wide range of family belief systems, and this can sometimes lead to uncomfortable lines of questioning.
“We do our best to educate families, hold information sessions and engage in courageous dialogues with those families,” Eriksson says. “We teach our students critical thinking skills, and this helps to engage in challenging conversations at home as well.”
Pear Tree SchoolPear Tree School is a progressive, co-ed, secular, and combined grades school with a culturally and socio-economically diverse school community.
“We view this diversity as a strength,” says Alexis Birner, co-founder and principal. “Everything about our school embodies the progressive DEI values that we collectively represent.”
Even Pear Tree’s non-traditional uniform is designed to break away from the colonial / gender stereotype, mini businessperson appearance. Instead, it embraces a collective school identity and a sense of belonging, socioeconomic and gender equality, and an undefined future career path for students.
“People make or break a school,” Birner says. “As parents have noted, every member of the Pear Tree team makes a daily impact on their child. Teachers view every student in the school as ‘their student,’ not just those in their classroom, and try to foster a positive relationship with every child.”
Pear Tree School’s theme-based learning approach is designed to appropriately challenge a broad spectrum of learners and to authentically connect to the real world. It also breaks down gender and cultural stereotypes. ePortfolios, individual goal setting documents, and varied assessments ensure that the child is constantly making progress.
“We follow the BC curriculum, but are not limited to it,” Birner says. “The themes and learning that we do reflect the diverse histories and culture within our school and beyond.”