Ontario Case Study - The Community School Initiative: Closing the Achievement Gap during COVID-19

Updated: Mar 11

Written by Ardavan Eizadirad, Sally Abudiab, and Brice Baartman

Wilfrid Laurier University and Youth Association for Academics, Athletics, and Character Education (YAAACE)

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the delivery of education with widespread disruptions. Many extracurricular programs that provided much needed support for marginalized children, families, and communities were shut down or offered remotely. Our research project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, explored how community-based programming can be adapted and mobilized to mitigate opportunity and achievement gaps for Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The project as a case study examined an afternoon and weekend supplementary academic program called the Community School Initiative (CSI) offered to members of the Jane and Finch community in Toronto. It is a partnership between the non-profit organization, Youth Association for Academics, Athletics, and Character Education (YAAACE) and for-profit enterprise, Spirit of Math.

CSI provides alternative academic support for BIPOC students who are achieving below the provincial standard. It delivered a structured math curriculum to students in grades two to eight (ages 8 to 14 years old) from September 2020 to May 2021 at a subsidized cost of $100 per person. It began with in-person programming, moved to remote delivery due to COVID-19 restrictions, and transitioned to a hybrid model to support families and their circumstances. Approximately 100 students participated in the program including 5 staff from Spirit of Math, 8 Ontario Certified Teachers, 8 YAAACE coaches, and other support staff. BIPOC educators were hired to represent the cultural identities of the students and their families. Coaches served as mentors, working collaboratively with the teachers to keep students accountable, motivate them, and facilitate transfer of skills from the classroom to sports and the larger community.

The efficacy and outcomes of the CSI were assessed through surveys with parents (n=33), students (n=33), teachers (n=4), and a focus group with teachers involved in the CSI. Data was collected between June to July 2021 and responses were examined using thematic analysis from a Critical Race Theory paradigm. YAAACE and Spirit of Math staff, two youth, and two parent advisors from YAAACE met monthly on a decision-making committee. Survey questions captured demographics and information about participants’ experiences in different roles as students, parents, or teachers. Fives themes were identified in the data and listed in figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Key Themes and Findings from the Data Analysis.

Findings indicate that the CSI effectively mobilized during the pandemic to minimize the achievement gap by creating access to academic opportunities that were affordable and socio-culturally relevant, sustaining, and responsive to systemic barriers impacting families living in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood. Overall, a place-based community approach to delivering educational programs and services with a focus on minimizing the opportunity gap in partnership with non-profits, schools, community organizations, and private enterprises is recommended as a response to mitigating intensifying achievement gaps. This was particularly important for youth who had access to caring adults during a difficult transition period created by pandemic restrictions. Below are a sample of quotes from students:

“It allows me to continue to learn outside of my class. I feel I am better at math now and I learn something new every single week.”

“It’s has really helped me in school. I’m getting all As in math now and I’m more organized and I was never as confident at school before.”

“I like that they are supportive and help with everything such as sports, school, and character.”

As part of knowledge mobilization and dissemination, a research blog was created (communityschoolinitiative.com) to share resources and findings with the larger community. On February 19, 2022 we will host a culminating symposium with community leaders and various stakeholders to share the findings and engage in further discussions. You can learn more about the findings by watching our webinar, hosted by CBRCanada in December 2021 or view the CBRCanada live discussion infographic.

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