June 22nd, 2021
On February 10, our 2020-21 student trustees, Tristan and Rowan, launched Thinking Out Loud, a ThoughtExchange survey to help them better understand and represent their peers. It was created exclusively for WRDSB students in Grades 7 to 12 to collect open and honest feedback. In addition, it provided all students with a safe, confidential space to share their thoughts and rate the anonymous thoughts of their peers.
The goal: to represent the collective student voice and ensure lived experiences are considered in the decisions and policies made at the Board table.
The survey asked one question: “What are the most important things Student Trustees should focus on?”
What did students say?
With close to 4,000 student participants, more than 2,800 thoughts shared, over 80,000 ratings, and with representation from each city and township, three main themes emerged:
- student mental health and well-being
- Human Rights and Equity
The most common theme shared was mental health. Nearly 40% of thoughts centred on this theme. It became clear, students who responded are stressed out and the pandemic year has left them feeling lost.
Some suggestions students made were to have peer-to-peer mental health supports and offer safe spaces where students can connect with mental health supports. They also shared that they have gone more than a year with no extra-curricular activities, limited connection with other students and staff, and are experiencing a loss of motivation altogether. Students are looking for proactive strategies and accessible resources.
What is being done?
In our elementary schools, the WRDSB currently offers Social-Emotional Learning programs that involve teachers and students learning together to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Next year, we will be introducing these programs into our secondary schools.
Educators have been provided with professional development on mental health for students and staff, anti-racism training, and trauma-informed practices, which will continue next year. Staff are continuing to explore collaborations with community partners to offer different models of support. Our Student Trustees have asked that these sessions be in-person, COVID-19 dependent. They would like thoughts, ideas and experiences to be exchanged and discussed, questions to be answered, and skills to be practiced.
For parents, our social workers and psychology department are currently hosting a variety of Lunch and Learn live online sessions about student mental health and well-being. The Stress and Anxiety Boot Camp, hosted over the summer break for students, will provide two free interactive, fun information sessions about stress and anxiety and how they can be managed.
The topic of mental health is complex and ongoing. As our current student trustees end their term, mental health and well-being will continue to be a priority for the incoming 2021-22 student trustees.
Human Rights and Equity
The second theme is Human Rights and Equity.
Students in Grade 7 and 8 shared they want access to period products and commented on the existing stigma around menstruation in WRDSB schools.
Students in all grades highlighted the inconsistent and gendered enforcement of dress code policies. Students called for equitable opportunities and specifically asked for all spaces to be 2SLGBTQ+ safe. They shared that all gender identities and sexualities should be normalized, accepted and respected. Students requested more gender neutral washrooms and change rooms. These facilities should not be put in places where students feel outed when seen entering them.
Lastly, students requested anonymous platforms where students can share confidential concerns with WRDSB administrators.
What is being done?
WRDSB plans to make free menstrual products available in both elementary and secondary schools with a phased approach. All dispensers will provide these products for free. Staff have shared their plans to increase awareness of their menstruation equity strategy through social media.
At the beginning of June, WRDSB announced the launch of the Indigenous, Equity, and Human Rights (IEHR) Department. The department will engage with students, staff, and community partners to provide support, informed advice, and monitor for the development of an equity-focused culture that is rooted in human rights and recognizes Indigenous perspectives.
There is work being done to build a new Student Advisory Group. It will be structured to connect students from diverse backgrounds in an authentic way.
Currently, there is a draft updated dress policy, which has been referred to the Human Rights and Equity team to provide an equity lens.
Earlier this year, an anonymous reporting tool recommendation was brought to the Board of Trustees and passed. Staff are working with students to implement the tool in the 2021-22 school year.
The third theme is learning.
The survey showed more than 75 thoughts were shared by students who want relevant life skills to be taught in WRDSB schools. The most popular response in the survey was that students wanted to learn financial literacy and personal finance skills.
Additionally, students found quadmestering to be problematic. Learning in the quadmester model is challenging due to a compressed workload, a lack of motivation, an overwhelming sensation of stress, and a learning disadvantage compared to semestering. Students also highlighted the lack of peer-to-peer and peer-to-staff connection in the quadmester model.
Grades 7 and 8 students want more support in their transition to high school.
Additionally, students shared many comments and feedback regarding instructional practices. Students do not always feel comfortable sharing, and building on the responses in the section above, that history lessons should be taught from a diverse range of perspectives.
What is being done?
The Ministry of Education has introduced a curriculum on financial literacy. However, due to the pandemic, professional development for teachers is on hold. Once professional development of curriculum resumes, teachers will be trained on the financial literacy subject and implement it into their teachings.
We are excited to share that student feedback on the quadmester model has helped inform planning for next year!
So, What’s Next?
After seeing the feedback students shared, our Student Trustees realized there is a lot of work to be done. With the school year coming to a close, much of the work will carry over into next year. Rowan and Tristan have connected with the incoming Student Trustees, Kenzy and Nicole. Together, they have helped create an action plan that will prioritize and include the voices of WRDSB students, especially in Grades 7 and 8 students.
Part of the action plan includes regularly updating Trustees on the work they have done using the Thinking out Loud survey data and meeting regularly with the senior team, which includes the Director of Education and Superintendents of Student Achievement and Well-being. The hope is to establish a new operational relationship between Student Trustees and senior staff that revolves around the Thinking Out Loud survey results.
This is complex work and will require ongoing support by students, staff and trustees.
On May 31, our Student Trustees presented the survey results (starting at the 1:00:50 mark) to the Board of Trustees that included two recommendations.
The first recommendation: to have Trustees write a letter to the Ministry of Education asking them to review the 2021-22 school year calendar plans and designate the quadmester format as the last possible option. This recommendation was passed unanimously, thanks to Trustee Kathleen Woodcock.
The second recommendation: to have Trustees write a letter to the Ministry of Education in support of the Toronto Youth Cabinet’s call for free and accessible menstrual products in all Ontario public schools. This recommendation was passed unanimously, thanks to Trustee Cindy Watson.
Tristan and Rowan would like to extend their gratitude to all the students who took the time to share their thoughts.
“We are incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity to advocate for WRDSB Students and have committed to establishing the survey results as a foundation for a new operational relationship between Student Trustees and WRDSB staff.”