Opening schools to the world
By Michelle Hibler
Ask Édith Dumont (BA ’85, MEd ’97) what drives her and she’ll answer “community service.” When she was inducted into the Order of Ottawa in November 2017, the citation noted “her commitment to school communities and today’s youth. Her passion for education makes her an inspiring ambassador and she has spoken around the world.”
This recognition from the city was a real honour, says Dumont, director of education for Eastern Ontario’s French-language public school board, Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario (CEPEO). “It represents an appreciation of the work and civic engagement that I try to embody every day.”
And her engagement has been recognized not once but twice. On March 5, she was awarded the insignia of the Ordre des Palmes académiques by the French government. This is the oldest distinction for civilians in France. At a ceremony celebrating the Mois de la Francophonie at the French embassy in Ottawa, the ambassador, Kareen Rispal, said she was honouring “a women of heart, an iconic and inspiring figure of the francophone minority’s education system in Ontario who has made the francophone cause a long-life commitment.”
Her causes vary widely, ranging from Francophone culture to crime prevention and protecting the rights of women and linguistic minorities. “I like the idea that getting together and working together for causes can make all the difference in our communities.”
But Dumont considers her greatest contribution is “to offer Ottawa a school board that promotes and celebrates diversity, and that believes deeply in the importance of inclusion and reaching out to the community.”
This approach is reflected in everything the CEPEO school board does. For example, the board’s homework clubs meet not in schools, but in the neighbourhoods where students live. “It’s a way of getting closer,” Dumont says.
One CEPEO initiative attracting interest from as far away as France is the series of coffee get-togethers for new immigrants called Café-communauté. For more than three years, newcomer families have gathered with other community members on Saturday mornings to learn about far more than the school system.
“We talk about health, vaccinations, job searches — all subjects that concern them,” she says. “Our mandate is to welcome and educate children, and a child is also their family."
“Participants tell us how valuable they find the Café-communauté program. For children, seeing their parents integrate, network, make friends and get to know other families helps them enormously to integrate into our schools.”
While Édith Dumont has deep roots in education — 26 years at the CEPEO — she was first drawn to clinical psychology. After graduating from uOttawa in 1985 and undertaking further studies in Montreal, she discovered the field of special education, then a new discipline. “It was like closing the loop,” she says of her MEd in educational psychology at uOttawa.
Her early career as a special education teacher, then as an educational adviser, was followed by five years in South Africa and France. She returned to Canada just as the country was welcoming thousands of refugees from Somalia and Djibouti.
“The late 1990s, early 2000s, were historic times for Ottawa,” she says. Dumont was appointed principal of a school that welcomed many new arrivals, whose experiences evoked her own time overseas with her young children.
“This time my heart was really in my work,” she says. “I was attuned to the challenges these families faced, without their extended family, with precarious employment, having to put their children into school and to trust an environment they didn’t know.”
That awareness heightened the cultural sensitivity that now permeates the entire board, which strives to integrate its 15,500 students, from more than 70 cultures and taught in 43 schools scattered over a territory the size of Switzerland.
Dumont has served as the CEPEO’s director of education and secretary-treasurer for the past six years. In 2017, on behalf of the board, she accepted an Employer Excellence Award from Hire Immigrants Ottawa for outstanding practices in recruiting and retaining skilled immigrants. The board’s efforts have included a partnership with uOttawa’s Faculty of Education to develop training modules that help new teachers from abroad better integrate into Ontario schools.
CEPEO’s multicultural success story includes creating a supportive environment for every child to thrive.
“Each of our schools has a teacher dedicated to ensuring student success,” Dumont says. “Social workers and psychologists are assigned to every school. We’re one of the first Francophone boards to have experts devoted to student well-being and mental health.”
These initiatives have not gone unnoticed. In November 2017, the board launched a partnership with the Académie de Versailles — the equivalent of France’s largest school board — to share what it has learned about promoting a positive, inclusive school climate. It has similar agreements with the Académies in Besançon, Aix-en-Provence, Marseille and Nice.
More interesting to students, perhaps, is the CEPEO’s partnership with FC Barcelona, which holds training camps in Ottawa for young soccer players. Other innovative arrangements include offering immersive learning in space science at the Cosmodôme in Laval, in music with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, in theatre at La Nouvelle Scène Gilles Desjardins and in STEM at the renovated Canada Science and Technology Museum.
“I’m convinced that our main role as educators is to open avenues and generate opportunities for each child to learn,” Dumont says. “We want them to learn to know themselves so they can flourish, to know others so they appreciate diversity and value inclusion, and to build their lives with an eye on the common good. That’s why I come to work every day.”
Édith Dumont with teachers and pupils at a CEPEO elementary school in Ottawa. Photo: CEPEO