Toronto Afrocentric School Controversy Essay

The debate over Afrocentric schools in Toronto is raging Wednesday despite a vote the night before by school trustees to approve a controversial step to help struggling black students with alternative education.

By a vote of 11 to nine, school trustees agreed on an "operational model" for a black-focused school.

The school would focus on the experiences and contributions of African people with a goal of discouraging students in the black community from dropping out.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday afternoon, the Toronto District School Board's director of education Gerry Connelly said she is committed to creating a program with an "evidence-based approach" to student success.

"Everybody is asking us how do we know we will be making a difference," she said. "Our commitment is to ensure that we all know that we are making a difference and why we are making a difference.

"We will be reviewing the many proposals received from community members, educators and experts about ways to improve success for the black students," she continued. "In May, we will report back to board of trustees with action plan based on proposals."

Christopher Usih, the board's system superintendent said there will be several next steps in the process to help ensure community involvement and accountability:

  • A survey will be distributed to Toronto public schools for parents so that the board can guage interest in an Afrocentric school
  • Four community forums will be held throughout the city, giving parents and communities a chance to give their feedback on a proposal. These forums will help establish the goal, curriculum and focus of the alternative school. It will also help determine whether the school should target elementary, middle, or secondary school students
  • A community survey to try and determine the best location for the school

'Innovative approach'

John Campbell, chair of the Toronto District School Board said the vote was a step in the right direction to help address the needs of at-risk students.

"It shows we're prepared and willing to be responsive to the needs of the community," he told CTV's Canada AM Wednesday. "The community came forward in a very loud and clear voice and said this is something that they wanted and I'm proud of the board that responded. I think this is a very innovative approach that we're taking."

However, Josh Matlow, a Toronto school trustee, said people in the black community don't just want to learn about cultural experiences but are asking for schools to respond to socio-economic issues such as poverty, nutrition and self-esteem issues.

He said there are other ways to change the system while keeping it all-inclusive.

"I believe we should expand curriculum and programs in all schools that are available to all kids of all backgrounds and colours," he said.

"I think the intentions are correct," he continued. "We need to respond to a serious issue. We need to respond to the drop-out rate in our schools but we need to respond to every single kid no matter what the colour of their skin."

A study done in 2006 found that 40 per cent of black students do not complete high school.

Nonetheless, Matlow said there are other cultures in Toronto who also have a high dropout rate and also need the support.

Campbell said there's still a lot of work to be done.

"I respect the position of the trustees who were opposed to this and they were opposed to it for some very good and very valid reasons but what we heard last night was a willingness on the board to address the issue," he said.

"Setting up one school will not address the issue across a city as broad as Toronto," he added. "We have to put in many other measures in place to make sure kids succeed in schools. This is only one component of that formula."

In total, the board has approved four strategies:

  • Creating a "Program Area Review Team" to recommend the program and operational model for an Afrocentric Alternative School, to open in September 2009;
  • Establishing a pilot program in three existing schools that would integrate the "histories, cultures, experiences and contributions of people of African descent and other racialized groups" into curriculum;
  • Establishing a "Staff Development, Research and Innovation Centre" to assess the best way for improving the success of marginalized and vulnerable students;
  • Drawing up a plan to address underachievement for all marginalized and vulnerable students.

James Wilson, an honours student in Grade 12 at Oakwood Collegiate Institute, is standing on the lawn in front of the proud, four-storey yellow brick high school, clutching a paper plate of farfalle with tomato sauce and salad. The farfalle grows cold as he tells me why he supports an Africentric high school here.

“Why not go for it? ‘Cause if you look at the dropout rates, it’s ridiculous for the black students,” the 17-year-old says. “I think it’s best to do something rather than nothing at all. The other Africentric elementary school was a success, so why not try it with a high school?”

Seeing us, a woman walks over and asks, “What is happening with the black-only school?” Like many in this well-heeled west Toronto neighbourhood, Ellie Rodrigues, a financial controller, is appalled by the idea of separating the black students at this school from others.

“It’s segregation,” she says. “I look at it, and right away I got a vision of black students filing in one way and the white students filing in another way.”

It’s the parents’ job to fill their kids with pride, she tells James.

“A lot of parents don’t do that though,” he counters.

“So maybe there should be a school for the parents,” replies Ms. Rodrigues, whose children plan to attend Oakwood.

Animated debate between the mom in Gucci sunglasses and the black teen in the Blue Jays bomber jacket represent just one more shock wave from the cluster bomb that the Toronto District School Board dropped on the neighbourhood this week, announcing a plan to launch an Africentric “school-within-a-school” at Oakwood in September. Couple that with another bomb from two weeks ago, when Trustee Maria Rodrigues floated the idea of a “Portuguese-centric” school, and you have parents shaking their heads — if not running for the exits.

Josh Matlow, a former TDSB trustee who opposed Africentric schools, is not surprised at the board’s new troubles.

“The TDSB could walk on a field with only one land mine and they would step on it,” says Mr. Matlow, now a city councillor for St. Paul’s. “It’s amazing.”

Supporters and opponents of Africentric schools, both black and white, I spoke to agree on one point: the TDSB did a terrible marketing job, announcing the plan for Oakwood before consulting the community. No wonder they ended up, on Tuesday night when hundreds of students and parents packed the auditorium, with a near-riot.

On Wednesday at a TDSB committee meeting, Chris Spence, the TDSB’s activist Director of Education, withdrew the Africentric at Oakwood plan, promising more consultation. But Jim Spyropoulos, superintendent of inclusive schools at the TDSB, says the board still plans an Africentric high school. Mr. Spyropoulos, once a teacher at Oakwood, is a father of three children aged five, three and one, and. He appears to enjoy his role in the line of fire.

“There are specific groups that have experienced gaps in terms of student achievement, and if we keep doing things the same way we are going to get the same results,” he says. “You discuss bold questions like race and class, you better get ready for criticism.”

Maria Rodrigues, the trustee for the area that includes Oakwood, supports the Africentric school plan, and wants to look at such a school for Portuguese-Canadians, too. In the TDSB, just 48% of Portuguese students graduated in 2005, though the number rose to 66% by 2009, the board’s number show.

“Many Portuguese kids have been streamed into vocational or technical,” she says. “A lot of people may not understand that there are financial incentives available. We want to keep students in schools and we want to fill up our schools. We don’t want schools to close.” The TDSB plans to spend up to $25,000 on a task force to study the needs of Portuguese-Canadian students, with a report coming in October.

Still, one wonders where this might end: after all, Hispanics are struggling, too.

Councillor Ana Bailão (Davenport), who immigrated from Portugal at age 15 and graduated from the TDSB’s West Toronto Collegiate, has worked to help Portuguese-origin students, but opposes Portuguese-focused schools.

“It’s like saying, everyone who needs social housing, let’s put them all in one corner,” she says.

Still, Lance McCready, an assistant professor of urban education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, points out that the TDSB already has dozens of alternative schools within its existing schools. He attended the Tuesday night meeting at Oakwood on Africentric schools, and left aghast at the lack of empathy from some in the crowd.

“They are blaming families for the failures of black students,” he says. “That’s shocking for me.”

Mr. McCready argues that black-focused schools merely codify a segregation that is already a fact of life in Toronto.

“At Oakwood, black students enter through a certain door and hang out in certain groups,” he said. “People in Toronto are increasingly living segregated lives. We already have residential segregation.”

Many agree that a good education starts at home. James Wilson notes two of his brothers graduated from Oakwood; he and his younger brother, José, are doing well here because, “We have a stable family. My dad and my mom tell us to stay focused.”

And yet even between the two Wilson brothers there is disagreement on the Africentric school idea.

James is in favour; José, 16, is opposed: “A lot of people are against it because they think it’s going to divide things,” he says. “Our school is pretty diverse and we don’t have a lot of problems. We get along very well and everyone feels that this would divide us.”

For now, the debate is on hold, but it is unlikely to disappear.

National Post

pkuitenbrouwer@nationalpost.com

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