Meet the GEEC team: Sarah Saeidpour

Meet Sarah Saeidpour, a Research Assistant on the GEEC team. Sarah is in her first year of the Bachelor of Education program at York University, and holds a B.A. in Early Childhood Studies from Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). Sarah has experience working in a variety of educational settings with children and families, such as in preschools with specialized programming for children with disabilities, elementary classrooms, and resource consultation.

As a registered early childhood educator, Sarah highly values inclusion and accessibility. She is always looking for ways to increase child and family engagement in education, and is passionate about compiling or creating resources that are relevant to each child’s/family’s individual needs and experiences. Sarah strives to follow and advocate for frameworks such as Universal Design for Learning, and hopes to create spaces where children and families feel a sense of belonging and community.

As a member of the GEEC team, Sarah is looking forward to gaining more insight into the world of research, and discovering new resources that are relevant to her practice and goals. Sarah is excited to build and share her passion for equity and accessibility in education throughout her participation on the team.

AERA 2022 

Between April 21 and 26, 2022, educators, researchers and community members met for the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting. This year’s theme was, ‘Cultivating Equitable Education Systems for the 21st Century’. Professor Sejal Patel and her former student Natalie Cummins (M.E.S., M.A.) shared about school administrators’ leadership strategies and practices to foster family-school-community partnerships in a school board-wide equity initiative. Findings suggest that anti-oppression and family-school-community partnership training should be mandatory for leaders in equity-deserving communities. In order to create more equitable outcomes, place must be considered, alongside targeted and tailored leadership strategies. Professor Sejal Patel and Krischanda Bemister (Research Project Manager, GEEC) shared about school-based stakeholders’ perspectives on their neighbourhood, housing redevelopment, social dynamics and sense of belonging. Findings support the importance of including child, teacher and parent voices when planning, implementing and evaluating policy initiatives that directly affect their lives.

Student spotlight: Leah Balkovec

Having not been together in person since class on March 13, 2020 when the University switched to a virtual format, Professor Sejal Patel was excited to reconnect with Leah Balkovec, her former first-year Human Development I & II student. They bumped into each other at a community ice skating rink, where Leah works as a skating coach for young children. 

About Leah Balkovec

Leah is a third year student in the Early Childhood Studies program who aspires to work as a teacher after graduating. She noted that her favourite part of the Human Development I and II courses was “learning about how a child’s brain processes information”, and that she “gained an in-depth understanding about child growth and development.” Leah shared that she has “been able to apply what [she] learned from Human Development I and II to [her] placement and work place settings.” During the pandemic, Leah shared that she found connecting through group chats and over the phone helpful in liaising with her classmates while learning online, despite the challenges of not being able to interact in person. During stressful times, such as during exam period, she “found that going for walks, working out, and listening to music were great stress relievers.” Leah shared that her choice of the Early Childhood Studies program was the result of her “passion for working with children” and that she appreciated the “hands-on experience in the field” that she gained from the program. 

#NationalDoctorsDay: Dr. Walaa Al-Chetachi

On #NationalDoctorsDay, we celebrate Dr. Walaa Al-Chetachi, Dr. Sejal Patel’s former research intern and an alumna of the Internationally Trained Medical Doctors (ITMD) Bridging Program at X University.

Dr. Al-Chetachi and Dr. Patel, in collaboration with MAECS alumna, Jacqueline H. Chan, contributed to secondary qualitative analyses of data that were collected as part of Dr. Patel’s longitudinal school-based Model Schools for Inner Cities research.

Click here to read more about the study.

About Dr. Walaa Al-Chetachi

Dr. Walaa Al-Chetachi is a medical doctor with a Ph.D. in Public Health and over 20 years of experience in public health education and research. She has led and implemented research studies in maternal and child health and chronic diseases, with an impressive publication record. Dr. Al-Chetachi has worked in government settings in Qatar for nine years, developing and implementing health promotion programs, national health care plans, along with training and supervising medical students and health care professionals. She is passionate about health promotion and empowering culturally diverse populations. Currently, she is collaborating with Dr. Sejal Patel’s research team, is a scientific committee member of the 13th Maternal Child Health handbook conference, a research team member in the diabetes prevention PREVENT project, and is a mentor for international medical graduates, advocating for their success in Canada. 

Structural Supports for Learning Coaches: Lessons Learned from the Model Schools for Inner Cities (MSIC) 

Coaching as a professional development strategy for school-based educators is a relatively new capacity building practice in Canadian elementary education. Teaching coaches provide direct on-site professional support and learning through their school visits on a regular basis over a period of time. Their professional support is meant to go beyond attendance at occasional workshops or seminars led by field experts, and extend to collaborating with educators to support classroom pedagogy by providing hands-on support on school premises.

In the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the roles of learning coaches have undergone two distinct implementation phases between 2007 and 2020:

1. MSIC Central Model – a more centrally coordinated approach under the MSIC Office with 15 learning coaches serving 150 MSIC schools between 2007 and 2016 

2. Learning Centre Model – a more decentralized and autonomous approach under the four Learning Centres since the Board restructuring in 2016; with about 15 K-12 learning coaches serving both MSIC and non-MSIC schools in each Learning Centre pre pandemic.

Given the importance of paying close attention to individuals affected by educational reforms in ensuring success (Fullan, 2007; Mangin, 2009), this research is particularly timely.

Our approach

This study investigates if and how system-wide restructuring has affected the roles and experiences of learning coaches in supporting educators and leaders in local schools. The research clarifies lessons learned in terms of systemic structures and conditions from two learning coach implementation phases in enhancing the roles of learning coaches to promote local school improvement and equity. The research question used to guide this study is: What were the experiences of learning coaches under the two implementation phases, with a focus on lessons learned?

Semi-structured focus groups were held with learning coaches, along with semi-structured interviews with MSIC administrative staff members, including principals, vice principals, and central TDSB staff in 2018 and 2019. Participants varied in their level of experience in their professional roles.

What we found

Based on the qualitative thematic analysis of the focus group and interview data, the following structures and conditions were identified as important infrastructure to support learning coaches in their coaching role at local schools: 

What are the takeaways from this study?  

Participants noted that learning coaches benefit from regular peer communication and collaboration, and having infrastructure in place to support this communication and collaboration was cited as something helpful. They also shared that ongoing and integrated professional development opportunities with an equity lens would be helpful for all staff, and highlighted the importance of school leaders’ buy-in and support of the work of the learning coaches, along with mentorship for new leaders and staff. Participants noted the need for clear and consistent Board-wide messaging around the goals, responsibilities and expectations of the learning coach role, along with adequate resource allocation. Overall, coherent system level leadership was seen as essential to the aforementioned structural supports. The findings of this study have implications for equity focused educational initiatives.

Click here to read more about the study.

To read more about the TDSB’s MSIC initiative and GEEC’s research, click here.

Document citation:

Patel, S., Yau, M., & Bemister, K. (2021). Structural supports for learning coaches: Lessons learned from the Model Schools for Inner Cities. Toronto, ON: School of Early Childhood Studies, Ryerson University.

This is an ongoing study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Partnership for Change: The RBC Immigrant, Diversity and Inclusion Project, Ryerson University, and the Toronto District School Board.

School Leadership and Family-School- Community Partnerships: The Model Schools for Inner Cities Initiative

School-level leadership is key in establishing family-school-community partnerships. The present research is based on interviews with parents and school administrators from two Toronto-area MSIC schools in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Participants were asked about programs and services available to children and families at the school, school-family relationships, how the school acts as the hub of the community, and engagement of newcomer, refugee, and culturally diverse families. School staff and parents play key roles in fostering family-school-community relations, and trusting relationships are the foundation for future community partnerships. This research has implications for hiring in an inner-city context, as well as training in family and community engagement. Anti-oppression and anti-Black racism staff training are also vital to ensure that schools effectively support students and families.

Our approach

The purpose of this study is to identify the leadership practices and strategies that fostered family-school-community partnerships in a Toronto-based, board-wide equity initiative. The Model Schools for Inner Cities initiative strives to enhance equity in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) by increasing access to social and educational supports for students and families in the city’s most marginalized communities. Qualitative case study techniques were used to explore leadership strategies and practices in two Toronto schools in the MSIC initiative. A descriptive analysis of secondary parent focus group and school administrator interview data were guided by the following research question: Within the context of the MSIC initiative in Toronto, Canada, what leadership strategies and practices do school administrators use to foster family-school-community partnerships? 

Semi-structured interviews were held with school administrators (principals and vice-principals) at both schools in 2014 and 2019

What we found

Seven prominent themes emerged from the descriptive analysis. These themes are bolded in the following discussion. The analysis revealed some similarities and differences between the two school sites. When no noteworthy differences were observed between time points, 2014 and 2019 data are treated as one sample.

Parents and administrators at both schools discussed the importance of creating a welcoming physical and social school environment. Parents discussed the importance of having an inviting entranceway and the important role played by all school staff, particularly front desk staff, in establishing a welcoming environment. All schools in the TDSB have automatic locks on their doors, but MS1 administrators tried to allow more open access to families. Parents and administrators at MS2 commented that their front entrance was small, not welcoming, and inaccessible for people using wheelchairs or strollers. MS2 parents spoke highly of a now-retired school custodian who was particularly approachable and involved with the school. Still, some parents at both schools did not feel welcomed.

Participants discussed ways that schools fostered a culture of care among staff and families. MS1 administrators interpreted a culture of care as demonstrating that the school cared about family and community well-being, social justice, and student achievement. MS2 administrators interpreted a culture of care as fostering caring, trusting relationships between school staff and families. MS1 administrators fostered their culture of care by including it in conversations with students and families, the school newsletter, and in school announcements. In 2014, MS2 parents and administrators referred to some distrust between families and school staff; administrators attributed this to past traumas or negative experiences with schools among parents, whereas parents said it was related to power dynamics and a lack of communication. In 2019, MS2 administrators discussed specific strategies to encourage trusting relationships, including establishing the office as a safe space for students and families and taking time to build positive relationships with each family.

Both schools encouraged communication with families using flyers, newsletters, phone calls with families, emails, social media, informal conversations, and more formal events. The parent council was a key way parents could bring concerns to the attention of the school at MS1.

Participants, especially at MS1, said that school staff, including administrators as well as other TDSB and MSIC staff, encouraged parent leadership and advocacy within the school. Schools offered opportunities for parents to serve as leaders, make decisions, and advocate for themselves and community causes. At MS1, the parent council was a key avenue for parent leadership. Parents described the MSIC Community Support Worker and administrators as co-leaders in the parent council. MS2 parents did not take on leadership roles in terms of school or community initiatives as MS1 parents did.

Parents at both schools felt that leadership presence in the community helped the school play an active role in the larger community. For example, in 2019, MS2 administrators hosted parent council nights and an intergenerational book club in a local apartment building after noticing that it was difficult for some families to get to the school in the evenings. This demonstrated to families that school staff were working to be a part of the larger community.

Participants identified several ways school staff and administrators established their schools a social and cultural broker, helping families connect with and navigate information and services in social, health, and educational systems. Parents and administrators identified Community Support Workers and TDSB Settlement Workers as key supports, particularly for newcomer families navigating Canadian health, education, and social systems. Still, some parents at both schools felt the schools could be more supportive of newcomer families, e.g., by providing translators and information about Canadian educational systems.

Finally, participants reported that administrators leveraged their community partnerships and their own social capital to address systemic inequities. For example, MS1 administrators referred to partnering with universities, hospitals, and not-for-profit organizations to address systematic racism by offering professional development focused on anti-oppression and anti-racism for staff and targeted school-based programs for racialized students and their families. MS2 administrators spoke less about specific partnerships to address systemic racism, but noted they were beginning to organize professional development for staff members focused on Black student excellence and anti-bias training as part of a larger, board-wide initiative. MS2 parents wanted more relevant parent programming to address systemic issues like unemployment, food insecurity, addiction, and teen pregnancy. They noted that programming at the school (e.g., parent events focused on literacy) were ‘band-aid’ solutions that did not address the root problems, and felt the school had the potential to help address generational cycles of poverty, addiction, and other social justice concerns. How administrators viewed social justice seemed to affect how schools addressed systemic inequities. MS1 administrators noted that equity was at the centre of their work and often referred to social justice in conversations with families. They felt that by expressing their intention to create more equitable educational and social systems, they helped parents view the school as an ally that cares about their children, family, and community.

What are the takeaways from this study? 

The leadership practices highlighted in this study are particularly important in this time of increasing advocacy for anti-racism, anti-oppression, and justice in systems such as education that can reproduce – or help combat – classism, racism, ableism, and social inequities. The findings have implications for school-family-community partnership practices, school leadership strategies in marginalized communities, system-level decision-making about the distribution of services and resources for students and families, and ultimately, how schools and education systems can create more equitable schools and communities. 

Click here to read more about the study.

To read more about the TDSB’s MSIC initiative and GEEC’s research, click here.

Document citation: 

Cummins, N. & Patel, S. (2021). School leadership and family-school-community partnerships: Knowledge mobilization summary report. Toronto, ON: School of Early Childhood Studies, Ryerson University.

This is an ongoing study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Partnership for Change: The RBC Immigrant, Diversity and Inclusion Project, Ryerson University, and the Toronto District School Board.  

Student and Teacher Perspectives on Safety and Inner-City Neighbourhood Change

What do students and teachers in a Canadian inner-city neighbourhood think about safety within the context of neighbourhood revitalization and school redesign? 


This qualitative study investigated student and teacher perceptions of safety while living or working in a neighbourhood undergoing revitalization while a local school redesign initiative also took place. Focus groups took place at two school sites that were impacted by the recently completed school redesign initiative: (1) the newly redesigned school (RS), and (2) a neighbourhood feeder school (FS1).

Violence and Safety in Schools

At RS, both returning and new students generally felt that the school provided them with an enhanced sense of security, in comparison to their feelings of safety within the community at large. However, a large number of students reported that the level of safety decreased in RS, partly due to perceived greater permeability of the building and grounds, and partly due to the violent behavior of some individuals in the neighbourhood.

Bullying & Fights in the School Setting

Given the unique circumstances relating to the ongoing construction work and changing structure of the neighbourhood, including disruption of place based familiarity and social bonds, new relationships and situations evolved that may have fostered bullying and victimization, as bullying was seen to be a pervasive problem amongst students in all the neighbourhood schools. Fights in the school setting were also reported by a number of students. 

Gang Activity, Neighbourhood Crime & Community Safety 

A number of junior and intermediate students in both FS1 and RS spoke about gang activity in the community. Students’ perceptions of gang activity in the neighbourhood were mixed, where some felt the presence of gangs had diminished, and others felt gangs in the neighborhood were active. Some junior and intermediate students also remarked on issues of territory in the neighborhood and rivalry between schools, with the different groups of students coming together in RS and FS1 due to school redesign. A number of students at both schools believed that the rate of crime in the neighborhood had not been reduced as a result of revitalization and the ongoing construction work itself raised concerns about safety among students.

What are the takeaways from this study? Students’ feelings of safety are related both to their social environment and the built environment. Student and staff voices matter and should be included in both neighbourhood redevelopment and school redesign initiatives.

This report is based on focus groups with students (aged 4 to 13), divided into Primary, Junior, and Intermediate grade groupings, and focus groups with teachers in 2013 and 2014. 

Click here to read more about student and school staff perspectives on safety during the school redesign.

To read more about the School Redesign and Neighbourhood Redevelopment: A longitudinal study of education success and well-being study,click here.

Document citation: Patel, S., Ranjbar M., Cummins, T., & Cummins, N. (2021). Safety and inner city neighbourhood change: Student and teacher perspectives. Education and Urban Society, 1-22. doi:

Throwback Thursday: AERA 2021

Between April 8 and 12, 2021, educators, researchers and community members virtually met for the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting. This year’s theme was, ‘Accepting Educational Responsibility’. Dr. Sejal Patel and Maria Yau shared about their community engaged research project studying a large urban school board’s initiative on inner-city students and its structural supports for learning coaches as part of the session.

About Maria Yau

Maria Yee-man Yau was an educational researcher associated with the TDSB for over 30 years. She is currently an educational research consultant working on projects at municipal, provincial and national levels. Maria’s years of research have covered a wide range of equity related issues including understanding and addressing the needs of immigrant and refugee populations, students from diverse racialized backgrounds, English Language Learners, international students, students with disabilities, and low socioeconomic communities. Aside from research, Maria sits on the board of directors of a charitable organization in support of immigrant youth, mentors young people in the workplace and the community, and supports rural education and youth development globally.

What programs, services and supports are available for newcomer and culturally diverse families in the Model Schools for Inner Cities initiative?

What are the challenges experienced by newcomer and culturally diverse families?

Newcomer and culturally diverse families can face unique challenges and marginalization, particularly as it relates to learning how to navigate the education system in Canada. The Model Schools for Inner Cities (MSIC) initiative aims to support all families and reduce inequities in their children’s educational success and well-being through innovation in public education. Programs and resources offered board-wide, through MSIC, and at the local school-level contribute to diverse families’ sense of well-being and belonging in their schools and communities. 

Our approach

Researchers spoke to TDSB administrators and parents in 2019 to gather their perspectives on the MSIC Initiative. They were asked specifically about what their school was doing to engage newcomer and culturally diverse families.


The following categories of programming, services, and supports were noted as contributing to newcomer and culturally diverse families’ sense of well-being:

  • Child and/or family focused programming and supports
  • Health and nutrition programming
  • Community outreach and getting to know families
  • Supporting settlement
  • Celebrating diversity
  • Equity-focused staff professional development and training

Recommendations and Implications for Practice

Equity, community, inclusiveness, and expectations are the goals of MSIC1. These principles can be exemplified and enhanced through the school-based MSIC and board-wide programs and services aimed at improving health and well-being for newcomer and culturally diverse families. Findings demonstrate that MSIC’s philosophy along with its enriched program features help to provide comprehensive supports for students and families from newcomer and culturally diverse communities.

  • Positive family-staff relationships and open communication are vital to newcomer and culturally diverse family engagement. A welcoming and supportive school culture helps families to feel that they are not alone. 
  • Professional development for staff is needed, including conversations related to power and privilege, identity, anti-oppression and anti-Black racism. Families emphasize the importance of educators and administrators understanding how their own identity and privilege can influence their teaching and work.
  • Celebrations and acknowledgement of diversity are an important way to showcase various cultures and ethnicities and can contribute to an increased sense of belonging. 
  • Including the voices of newcomer and culturally diverse families in decision making around school and educational policy is key to upholding the goals of MSIC, and should help to inform practice in schools and communities. 
  • Results highlight the importance of school staff outreach and getting to know your community of families.

1. Toronto District School Board. (2005, May). Model Schools for Inner Cities task force report. Retrieved February 13, 2019 from: http:// Community/ModelSchools/ InnerCityReportMay2005.pdf 

Click here to read more about programs, services and supports for newcomer and culturally diverse families within MSIC.

To read more about the TDSB’s MSIC initiative, and GEEC’s research, click here.

Document citation: Patel, S., Bemister, K. & Yau, M. (2020). Programs, Services and Supports for Newcomer and Culturally Diverse Families within Model Schools for Inner Cities (MSIC): Knowledge mobilization summary report. Toronto, ON: School of Early Childhood Studies, Ryerson University

This is an ongoing study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Partnership for Change: The RBC Immigrant, Diversity and Inclusion Project, Ryerson University, and the Toronto District School Board.  

Dr. Sejal Patel’s Q&A with the Toronto Star

Article: Coronavirus Q&A: Focus on children’s “social and emotional well-being” Education researcher answers questions on parenting during COVID-19 | Toronto Star

As parents underwent virtual learning challenges in Spring 2020, the Toronto Star invited Dr. Sejal Patel to chat with Star readers who had questions about education during this unprecedented time.

Parents and caregivers shared their questions about how to keep children engaged with online learning and how to socialize young children in a time where social distancing measures were recommended. 

In the Q&A Dr. Patel acknowledged that online learning while maintaining social distancing may increase inequities for children and families with certain families and communities not gaining as much from virtual learning due to their circumstances. She noted that we will have to pay attention to this as a society, working together to support one another, building upon strengths and monitoring progress once we are through the period of distancing (Patel, 2020). Read the full interview here.

In 2016, Dr. Patel published findings from a study investigating the relations between participation in integrated early childhood services and children’s early development. The findings have implications for our circumstances today, with more equitable learning outcomes for 4 and 5 year old children who had greater participation in integrated early childhood programming (including full day kindergarten) in terms of children’s physical health and well-being, language and cognitive development and communication and general knowledge, after taking into consideration demographic, parent and school site factors. 

Access the full study, ‘Dose-response’ relations between participation in integrated early childhood services and children’s early development, here.


Patel, S. (2020, April 6) Coronavirus Q&A: Focus on children’s “social and emotional well-being” Education researcher answers questions on parenting during COVID-19. The Toronto Star.

Patel, S., Corter, C., Pelletier, J., & Bertrand, J. (2016). ‘Dose-response’ relations between participation in integrated early childhood services and children’s early development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly35(Complete), 49–62.