Why do/did you want to become a school board trustee? What experience do you bring to the role? How will you balance the time and effort you devote to being a trustee with other commitments you may have?
I want to make sure that every students is provided equal access to a high quality education. Over the last ten years, I have consistently been involved in initiatives, projects, programs and organizations that aim to better the lives of students, not only in Waterloo Region but across the country. After being chosen as one of ten women to receive the Province of Ontario’s Leading Women, Building Communities award for the riding of Kitchener-Waterloo in 2018, I knew it was time to use the skills that I’ve gained from my experience in educational institutions, advocacy and equity roles to support students and educators in the Waterloo Region. As a woman of colour, who is the child of an immigrant, with a variety of invisible and visible marginalizations, I am passionate about equity in education. If elected to be a Trustee for the Waterloo Region District School Board, I promise to tirelessly work to ensure that every student in Waterloo Region is supported and given the tools that they need to have a positive and successful educational journey.
Some of the key strengths that I bring are my communication and public relations skills, expansive facilitation background, my conflict resolution experience (especially in regards to marginalized populations) and background, technical background, and advocacy background. I’m humbled as I reflect on some of the leadership roles that individuals and organizations have asked me to take on over the years, especially in formal committees and boards. I’m a founding and current member of the International Citizen Science Association (CSA)’s Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Working Group, an invited member of the City of Cambridge’s Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee, and one of the lead organizers of Plan B KW. I’ve taken on leadership roles on boards and committees at both the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, inclusive of sitting on the Centre for Community Research, Learning, and Action (CCRLA)’s board. In my day job, I am proud to be a member of the Persons with Disabilities Committee representing teams across Technology Solutions at TD and work closely on Women in Leadership in Technology and LGBT Initiatives for Technology Solutions at TD. Moreover, I’m lucky enough to mentor the co-op employees who work with TD Lab each term and the students and youth in STEM that I get the pleasure of teaching design thinking and ideation skills to through the programs that TD supports. I owe these opportunities to incredible mentors both in and outside of the workplace.
As for time management, I’m a Type A Planner kind of human. However, I am fortunate to know that if I am elected, the first year of being a Trustee would correspond with my maternity leave. I would use this time to really get to know each of the schools in Kitchener, the concerns and successes of each of them, and understand the amount of extra work that I could put in as a new parent. Once I have this understanding, I would be able to adequately understand the best ways to devote my time to the role.
What is the single greatest impact you plan to make for students?
I aim to make each and every student feel like they belong and are supported in their educational journey. The policies, procedures, and political statements that we make as a board will actively signal to our students, parents, and educators how welcomed and supported they are in our educational system. I will advocate that we listen to our marginalized students in all policy and procedural decisions made by WRDSB.
What are your top three priorities?
I have seven priorities: TRC Curriculum and Indigenous-settler relations, systemic and institutional inequality in education for underserved populations, health education, violence in the classroom, the ratio of educators to students, retrofiting and maintenance of our schools, and the balancing of budgets when the amount of offloading of costs from the province isn’t known yet.
What things must we get right in education over the next decade?
We need to really address the inequalities that can be found in the student experience, due to factors such as sexual and gender identity, class, race, religion, and accessibility needs. We need to address the unintentional/intentional intellectual segregation that our students face based on the school (and enrichment program – be it French Immersion, technology, IB, etc.) that they attend.
What is the biggest challenge schools in our community currently face? How do you propose to address it?
That’s a tricky question; depending on who you are talking to, there is a wide range of answers. From talking with parents, students, and educators, some of the key challenges and issues that have come up include: TRC Curriculum and Indigenous-settler relations, systemic and institutional inequality in education for underserved populations, health education, violence in the classroom, the ratio of educators to students, retrofiting and maintenance of our schools, French Immersion access and a perceived two-tier system, enrichment programming access, and the balancing of budgets when the amount of offloading of costs from the province isn’t known yet. Each of these challenges needs to be assessed, involve our communities in the discussion, and we must ensure that we creating an equitable educational system for all.
What do you see as the role of schools and school boards in being responsive to diverse communities and ensuring equity and inclusion in schools?
As a woman of colour, with invisible marginalizations, who is the child of an immigrant, I understand first hand the barriers that prevent and exclude individuals from participating fully in our community. I’m thankful that, since 2013, I’ve either been employed by or co-led organizations where over 75% of my tasks are focused on work that is meant to tear down barriers and increase the participation of underrepresented and underserved communities, inclusive of youth in STEM, women in STEM, LGBTQIA+ in Waterloo Region, accessibility in tech, and individuals new to Canada. I am cognizant of how privileged I am to even run in a municipal election, and hope to represent, if elected to WRDSB, many of the communities that are not represented in the current set of trustees.
Having spent time as an advocate and a lobbyist, I am excited to continue this work and work with our local governments by taking a four-pronged approach: 1. Employing consultants and experts of those maginalizations for all comprehensive research and strategy reports and plans, 2. Engaging with the gatekeepers and elders in those communities respectfully, from the beginning of my term, and committing to relationships built on respect, transparency from WRDSB, and humility, 3. Asking for involvement from those communities, giving them the space and room to voice their experiences and concerns, and not moving forward on decision-making meetings if we haven’t reached quorum on representation from these communities, and 4. Actively seek members from those communities to be involved in WRDBS committees.
What do you see as the role of schools in making sure that all Canadian students understand Canada’s history in terms of First Nation, Métis and Inuit peoples? What would you do to support the Calls to Action of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)?
As I have stated publicly, the dismissal and treatment of the Elders a part of the TRC writing sessions is abysmal at best, and an act of colonization at worst. The Elders deserve a public apology, at a bare minimum, with a commitment from the government to complete the writing sessions with the funding that is deserved, necessary, and needed. Even if I am not elected, I will continue to fight for the Indigenous curriculum in our educational system, inclusive of the TRC writing sessions.
Moreover, the last residential schools closed in 1996, the year that many of our newest educators were born. Waterloo Region is situated on the Haldimand Tract, and yet many of our residents couldn’t name the closest reserve nor the nations of the people who called this area home first. With the scrapping of the TRC Curriculum, it is up to WRDSB to create (in consultation with Indigenous communities) and enact policies to ensure that, if the Province does not move forward, we as a school board move forward on acting on as many of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s action as possible.
How much access do you think the public should have to their school board trustees?
Your elected officials should be accessible and you should have direct access to them. I commit to regularly updating the public, be it through blogs, social media, email, or media availability to talk about all upcoming meetings, the things being discussed, and would have a regular call out for feedback to ensure that all voices are represented in those decisions and processes. Even now, my virtual door (as I don’t have a public office) is always open and easily accessible via my website, http://www.samantha-wr.com.
What sort of relationship do you think a trustee should have with fellow trustees and student trustees? How do you plan to support a collaborative environment in the board room?
Trustees should have a working, collaborative relationship that is centred on the wellbeing of our students and educational system. With our student trustees, we should also have a mentorship-centred relationship that would allow for the transfer of knowledge, best practices, and professional growth in their role and respects the unique expertise and viewpoint they bring to the Board. As a trained mediator, I would utilize my academic and professional training to create a collaborative environment in and outside of the board room.
What sort of relationship do you think a trustee should have with the board’s Director of Education? How will this help you in your role of responding to concerns raised by parents and other members of the community?
Trustees and the Director of Education should have an open and transparent relationship that is centred on the wellbeing of our students and educational system. This open and transparent relationship would allow me to express concerns raised by parents and other members of the community, and share the most up to date information from the staff. By having an open and transparent line of communication between the board and the staff, parents and members of the community can receive the information that they seek as quickly as possible and give back feedback regularly.
What sort of relationship do you think a trustee should have with the municipal government?
We need to have a collaborative relationship with our municipal governments. We are only a few months into this new government, and we are already seeing the province offload costs on to municipalities by cancelling grants and programs that would support initiatives needed and utilized by our school boards and educational system. I am sure that we will continue to see the offloading of costs by the province as the next four years progress. We will need to ensure that we are able to deliver the quality of education that our students deserve, both in terms of service and the physical space, while adjusting to the new fiscal realities that WRDSB will face over the next four years. This can only be done by working in tandem with our municipal governments to help shape how our budgets can best be utilized to support our educational system.
How do you plan to promote accountability and transparency at your board?
I’m a professional communicator, facilitator, advocate and artist – meaningful participation is a core element of how I work and live. As someone who has weaseled my way into more than my fair share of meetings to get (as close as possible) an understanding of policy and budget decisions, I commit to being transparent about all WRDSB decisions and processes (unless it breaks laws, statutes or in-camera confidentialities). As stated above, I commit to regularly updating the public, be it through blogs, social media, email, or media availability to talk about all upcoming meetings, the things being discussed, and would have a regular call out for feedback to ensure that all voices are represented in those decisions and processes. Even now, my virtual door (as I don’t have a public office) is always open and easily accessible via my website, http://www.samantha-wr.com.
Can you comment on the value of professional development opportunities for trustees and student trustees?
Some of the best professional development happened during my time as a student on board and committees during my university journey. I actively reflect on the professional development opportunities that I had access to and the skills I acquired. Currently, I sit on a variety of boards and committees and have continue to find the professional development opportunities, be it specialized training, coaching, workshops, etc., continue to be invaluable and some of the best pathways of growth for myself. I also strongly believe that these opportunities have made me a better employee, community member, and person in general.
Can you comment on what schools need to support the full range of student abilities including students with special needs?
My sister is a teacher who focused on junior grades before taking a string of long-term occasional (LTO) roles as an elementary resource teacher. There is a backlog (and a steep financial barrier) in the way that we diagnose and understand the complex learning and accessibility needs of our students, even more so for marginalized students. We need to ensure that, from in-take to IEP creation, the student is prioritized. On top of this, our classroom sizes are too large and there are not enough educational assistants (EAs) to ensure that the ratio of students to educators is at a level that supports the learning of all students. With a lower ratio of students to educators, educators can take the time and care to ensure that each student is support, no matter their accessibility needs.
What should be done to contribute to the overall mental health and well-being of students and staff in schools?
As stated above, there is a backlog (and a steep financial barrier) in the way that we diagnose and understand the complex learning and accessibility needs of our students, even more so for marginalized students. We need to ensure that, from in-take to IEP creation, the student is prioritized. Moreover, this means taking the time needed to humanize the student in this process. This also means creating environments in our classrooms that validate the identities of the students, not marginalize or discriminate. The policies, procedures and political statements that we make as a board actively signal to our staff and students how much we prioritize their mental health and well-being, be it support the 2015 Health and Physical Education curriculum, the TRC writing session, advocating for small student-to-educator ratios to address violence in the classrooms, or prioritizing retrofitting our schools so that classrooms do not reach 47 degrees during a heat wave.
What are your views on the role of technology in teaching and learning?
I am currently (soon to be on maternity leave) the Outreach Operations Manager for TD Lab, TD Bank’s Innovation Lab in Communitech. I spend a significant amount of time in my role facilitating workshops for students across the Region on Design Thinking, ideation, wireframing, Scratch, among other things. I have seen first hand the growth in the students that have access to technology enrichment programming and classes. However, not all students in Waterloo Region have access to these programs and this is often most apparent in schools in neighbourhoods with lower socio-economic status.
If elected, I would propose a study of the current technology enrichment programs and classes run through the Region to assess the following: the successes/gaps/demands of current enrichment programs and classes, which schools are under-served, how many enrichment teachers would be needed to expand enrichment programming to all schools, the cost to staff new technology enrichment programs at schools across the Region to meet the demand (if/when found), and a comprehensive study of unintentional /intentional intellectual segregation and tiered experience of students with access to enrichment programming and those without access to enrichment programming.
What are your thoughts on the use of social media in the classroom and in schools?
As someone who works in technology, I understand the pros and cons of using social media in the classroom and schools. When used correctly, it opens up the world to the students, be it virtually exploring the Great Wall of China, chatting with students in France as a means of practicing their French, or creating their own art galleries using exhibits from the Museum of Modern Art without leaving the classroom. However, social media can also be a beacon for incorrect information, discrimination, cyberbullying, and hate speech. There needs to be protocols in place that allows classrooms to utilize social media while protecting our students from harm. If elected, I would utilize my extensive experience in social media to sit on the Internet Content Filtering Working Committee and work with parents and educators on these creation of these protocols, policies and procedures.
What are schools doing, or what more should schools be doing to be safe and inclusive places for students, e.g., with regard to anti-bullying?
If you look at the type of extracurriculars, leadership opportunities, educational extension opportunities, and the state of the schools in the poorest and richest neighbourhoods in Kitchener, you can see the stark difference in the education that our students receive. We don’t need to do more than a cursory Google search to see the extent of the bullying and isolation that our students of colour, LGBTQIA+ students, and students with accessibility needs experience. We need to address this in a two fold manner: targeting underserved schools and improving their infrastructure, and creating policies that focus on the safety, inclusion and validations of our most marginalized students.