Manitoba’s largest school district is undergoing a major overhaul of its leadership structure in a bid to “flatten the hierarchy.”
As of Monday, the Winnipeg School Division will have a chief superintendent, six new assistant superintendents with specialized portfolios, and a divisional kokum (grandmother in Cree).
Deputy leaders will each oversee about 13 schools, down from the existing model wherein a handful of directors work with 18 kindergarten-to-Grade 12 buildings and report to two assistant superintendents who work under the chief executive officer.
“We’re really trying to open up the board office. All the principals have my cellphone number,” said Matt Henderson, who assumed WSD’s top leadership position at the start of the academic year and began overseeing the education of roughly 30,000 pupils across central and inner-city classrooms.
Among their new titles, assistant superintendents will be in charge of: anti-racism, equity and climate justice; deeper learning and rigour; and innovation, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) and engagement.
“Climate justice” is spelled out because children are growing up during an environmental crisis and if school leaders are serious about wanting graduates “to have the means to a decent life — which I think is the purpose of public education,” then they need to build ecologically literate citizens, Henderson said.
WSD kokum Marsha Missyabit will join the senior administration team and work alongside Myra Laramee, the division’s current elder and knowledge keeper.
Combined, the roles reflect “the vision of where we want to take the division,” added the freshly-minted superintendent, who was previously a senior administrator in the Seven Oaks School Division.
Two of his new colleagues, Shelley Warkentin and Lorelei Bunkowski, are also leaving Seven Oaks to move into the board office at 1577 Wall St. E.
WSD confirmed there will be no layoffs in the transition, although a number of employees in acting positions are returning to their previous roles following the open competition for the postings. School trustees were part of the interviewing and hiring process.
Henderson said the changes will “flatten the hierarchy” and ultimately, build bridges between the division’s headquarters, individual schools and student homes.
Tamara Kuly, chairwoman of the board of trustees, noted equity is a notable theme in the roster.
“Our division is diverse and we need to be able to actively respond to and serve our community, and so that’s why it’s important,” Kuly said. “It’s reflecting our reality.”
“Equity work, anti-racism work, climate justice does not happen in isolation… We need to build trust because that’s the only way for us to start healing ourselves and our communities,” said Mohammad Rezai, one of the incoming assistant superintendents.
Rezai, an Iranian-Canadian, arrived in Winnipeg more than 35 years ago. At the time, the then-22-year-old refugee, whose first language is Azari, began studying English at Isaac Newton School. He later graduated from the division’s adult education centre.
In his new role, the career educator said he will draw on both his firsthand experience as a student and working in various inner-city, North End and south Winnipeg neighbourhoods.
An equity lens is required for everything from hiring processes to professional development, Rezai said.
Earlier this year, WSD released an employment equity report that exposed employee concerns about the barriers women, racialized people, Indigenous people, people with disabilities and members of the LGBTTQ+ community face in the workforce.
A common theme in the audit, which drew on staff surveys and interviews, was the perception nepotism is a persistent problem and promotions are primarily relationship-based instead of merit-based. It also noted employee reports of employment prejudice against people with non-Canadian accents.
Rezai said furthering equity work in the division is bound to be uncomfortable.
“This is nothing new to our school division,” he said. “We have made great strides in so many fronts, but having (an assistant superintendent of anti-racism, equity and climate justice) really signals our commitment to the work.”
Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press