Ontario schools have failed black students by having too few teachers of colour, too few courses on black thought and a zero tolerance code that hits black students hardest, charges a leading Canadian researcher into race and schooling.
And sociology professor George Dei drew an explosion of applause from a crowd of 500 last night when he called for black alternative schools to right some of these wrongs.
Dei, who is chair of equity in education for the Ontario Institute for Studies In Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto, was one of several panellists at a heated forum last night called “Making the Grade: Are We Failing Our Black Youth?” The town hall-style meeting at the St. Lawrence Centre on Front St. drew a standing-room-only crowd and left dozens more disappointed in the lobby, unable to enter because of fire regulations.
“Are we failing black youth? Yes, yes, yes,” said Dei, who has done extensive research on why black teens often feel disengaged in Toronto high schools. “The curriculum doesn’t reflect their lives, there are too few black teachers and the zero tolerance policies stigmatize them.
“The dropout rates don’t tell the whole story: black students are being pushed out.”
Cheers broke out when Dei called for the creation of experimental black-focused schools that would have more black teachers, guidance counsellors, Africa-centric curriculum and more open discussion of race.
“These schools would be very different from the segregated schools of the South, because those were designed to disconnect blacks,” Dei said in an interview.
“These schools would be created to address a problem and they would be open to students of any colour.”
Dei was reviving an idea first raised in 1991 when Ontario’s Royal Commission on Learning urged school boards to set up alternative black-focused schools to address the lower graduation rates among black students.
“Black students tell me they graduate from high school without ever being taught by a visible-minority teacher,” said Dei. “Some speak of the low expectations teachers have of them. Some say the schools are just not welcoming.”
Speaker after speaker supported his case.
Kyse Stoddard, 21, who graduated from Cedarbrae Collegiate two years ago, said he had attended three city high schools and had only one black vice-principal and one black teacher.
“Those numbers really need to increase, because black kids need to see success around them and a black teacher is a role model you can relate to,” said Stoddard, who now works with the Malvern Youth Community Employment Program.
Panellist Jasmine Zine said she was a high school dropout because she felt so marginalized as a black student, but went on to enter university as a mature student and has worked with Dei as a researcher.
“They say black students are ‘at risk’ because they’re seen as minorities, yet so-called minorities represent a majority now in Toronto. We should not be pushed out and displaced into the margins.”
Semhar Woldeyesus, 19, said guidance counsellors at her high school steered her away from university despite good marks, and she dropped out. It was only at the insistence of her father, a math teacher, that she finished her diploma at night school and she now is a first-year student at the University of Toronto.
“Everyone knows a lot of guidance counsellors are biased against black students. They need better training.”
The Toronto District School Board only recently decided to start gathering statistics on student performance based on race for the first time since 1991, when the board of education for the old city of Toronto found black students dropped out at a higher rate than students of other racial backgrounds.
The forum was sponsored by the St. Lawrence Centre Forum and CHIN Radio & TV.