June 13, 2013
School’s out for the summer, but the announcement of a new Africentric school opening this fall already has some already thinking about the upcoming school year.
Since the Toronto District School Board opened Canada’s first Africentric elementary school in 2009, the issue of whether or not such an alternative school should even exist has become the focal point of a controversial debate. No other school in the recent history of Toronto has elicited such strong emotions from residents. Toronto is a city that prides itself on its multiculturalism, diversit y and inclusion – does the notion of black-focused schools run contrary to its ideals?
“A disproportionate amount of black students were failing or being failed by the system. Something needed to be done to address this,” says community leader Donna Harrow of the approximately 40% of black students who do not graduate from TDSB secondary schools. In a TDSB student census, 72% of Grade 7 students said they wanted to learn about their culture, 69% said they would enjoy school more if they learned about their culture and 50% said they would feel better about school if they could learn about their history in the classroom.
In an attempt to address these issues, Harrow and fellow community leader Angela Wilson approached the TDSB and proposed three Africentric schools from kindergarten to Grade 12, under the terms of the Board Alternative Schools Policy and Procedures. The TDSB narrowly voted to approve the school on Jan. 29, 2008.
“Many parents or communities have started alternative schools to address the needs of children that were not being met by the regular system,” says Harrow. “It was logical to have an Africentric alternative school that not only black students could attend, but any student who was interested in learning in an Africentric way. Ultimately the lessons learned from this school could and would be part of the entire TDSB.”
Canada’s first Africentric Alternative School, serving students from kindergarten to Grade 8 at Sheppard Public School in North York, has enjoyed a number of successes in the short period since its humble beginnings. Eighty-five students enrolled for the school’s opening in September 2009 (the school was expecting only 40). By the end of the month, 130 were enrolled. Enrolment today stands at approximately 200 students, and students have delivered above-average test scores in math, reading and writing.
For Professor George J. Sefa Dei, one way these schools benefit students is by providing them with an appreciation of their history and culture. “The school gives them a strong sense of identity,” says Dei, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.
In 2011 trustees voted to open a second Africentric program, in an attempt to provide a pathway for students to transition from elementary to secondary Africentric schools. Last fall, the Africentric high-school program launched at Scarborough’s Winston Churchill Collegiate with just six students – but has now grown to 18, enough for a full program this upcoming school year.
“I think the people who advocated the Africentric school really believed that they were doing the right thing, I just don’t think it’s the answer,” says Counc. Josh Matlow, a former TDSB trustee who voted against the Africentric school proposal. “I don’t want one school to be respectful and supportive to black students in our city; I want every school to be that way. And just by having one school in one corner of the city that’s Africentric doesn’t actually respond to the fact that we have hundreds of kids across Toronto that need support, and the Africentric school isn’t the solution.”
To date, there has been minimal, yet somewhat noteworthy, controversy surrounding the first Africentric school. From the beginning, a group of parents opposed the school curriculum, claiming it was not Africentric enough, and delivered a list of grievances to then-principal Thando Hyman-Aman. In 2011, a parent issued an unspecified complaint against Hyman-Aman, who was temporarily suspended and then vindicated of the accusations (she has since accepted a head position at Alexander Stirling Public School.) This raised questions on how well the school was being run.
And there is also the segregation debate. Critics argue that even though these Africentric schools were created with the best of intentions, they can possibly marginalize black youth instead of empower them. According to Matlow, the school board shouldn’t put resources into schools that separate students based on ethnicity or culture; rather, there needs to be training among school board staff to support all students.
“If we isolate kids based on what we believe their culture is, school by school, we don’t give them the opportunity to learn about the wonderful reality of diversity in our city and our country,” says Matlow.
The TDSB will open a second Africentric high school program this fall at Downsview Secondary School, providing students with the opportunity to take four Grade 9 compulsory courses with an Africentric focus. Only time will tell whether the school will be a success story, but to Harrow, it is a viable pathway for students.
“It is evident from the elementary school, that this approach is successful. I see nothing but success for the secondary school – when it becomes a school,” says Harrow. “I believe the future is the same for this alternative school as it is for any other. The work within that school and the commitment of school staff and the TDSB will be evident in that success.”
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