Debates on the collection of race-based data by the Toronto District School Board reflect competing visions of education in Ontario. But to what extent will these statistics reinforce negative stereotypes, ignore or address low student performance, or simply blame individual educators?
These debates raise the issue of how some students, notably racial minorities, are being denied full opportunities by the public school system.
The problem of black youth disengagement from school is well documented. As a parent and academic I support the public school system, and I echo the sentiments of educators and community groups who for years have advocated alternative visions of schooling.
Our school system has an important role to play in providing all youth with hope and opportunity. It is with this in mind that I want to revisit the issue of “black focused” schools.
An informed debate must address two key interrelated questions: First, what is a “black-focused” school? Second, what would such a school look like?
A black-focused school challenges the conventional educational environment and stresses the principles of responsibility, interdependence, respect for elders, transparency, and accountability. The school seeks to centre the learner in her or his own culture, history, personal location and spiritual identity.
While these principles are not exclusive to such a school, they do provide a model for holistic, socially integrated schooling that all students may benefit from. It will strive for high academic excellence and meet provincial standards.
The second question calls for imagining new forms of education.
A black-focused school is organized around communal principles and non-hierarchical structures. In making the totality of black-lived experience relevant to all parts of the curriculum, the school would foster the social, physical, spiritual, and academic development of students.
In breaking down the separation between the formal school and the wider community, incorporating the family/home and the workplace, the school offers new and creative ways of thinking about knowledge, and then engaging students to use this knowledge to make positive social changes.
All of us, whether we have students in the school system or not, can benefit from these gains as students engage with education as an expression of shared community.
In November, 1992, a multi-level government task force in Ontario, the African-Canadian Community Working Group, proposed creating one predominantly black junior high school in each of the six Metropolitan Toronto municipalities and a five-year pilot scheme to establish what were termed black-focused schools.
The Royal Commission on Learning recommended that “school boards, academic authorities, faculties of education, and representatives of the black community collaborate to establish demonstration schools” in jurisdictions with large numbers of black students.
The school would have predominantly black and racial minority teaching staff and be open to students from a range of social backgrounds: racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and “immigrant.”
Community groups such as the Organization of Parents of Black Children have long supported this idea of black-focused schools, acknowledging that racial solidarity alone will not ensure black youth success in schools.
Why have these recommendations gone unheeded?
The legitimate concerns arising from this proposal have centred on the notions of social segregation and equality of education.
In North America, these have been treated as opposite sides of the same proverbial coin.
Integration, however, has not guaranteed equitable educational outcomes for all youth. Quality education for all is possible only when equity issues are addressed.
Some argue that black-focused schools represent a reversion to the days of segregation. But there is a meaningful difference between forced segregation and separation by choice.
Segregationists in the first half of the 20th century sought to exclude blacks from meaningful participation in society.
By contrast, black-focused schools aim to address an educational crisis and help minority youth succeed.
Proponents of the idea are not talking about pulling every black youth away from mainstream schools. To see black-focused schools as segregated schools, we must ask: How different are these schools from all-girls’ schools? Or boy-only literacy classes in the junior grades in response to standardized provincial test results indicating lower achievement levels in reading and writing among this group?
Does the stigma of segregation only achieve political currency when applied to race?
Opponents question how such schools will contend with backlash and social stigmatization, provision of funds, curriculum, pedagogy, and resources, diversity of staff, and benefits of a protective but unrealistic school environment from which these students must eventually move.
Rather than weakening current efforts by mainstream schools to be inclusive of African-Canadian experiences, a black-focused school enhances them. Mainstream schools, however, must continue to strive to be inclusive.
There is no reason why the existence of a black-focused school should lead to an either/or situation. Ontario’s diverse communities and classrooms necessitate educational inclusion in terms of what is taught, how it is taught, by whom, and outreach to the larger society.
The call for black-focused schools reflects the larger structural problems facing Ontario’s public school system.
The idea of such a school questions the fundamental objectives of public schools: what and how they are supposed to teach, who graduates from the system and with what accreditation and whose interests are reflected in official channels for teaching, learning, and administration of education.
Black-focused schools are part of a larger dialogue about teaching and learning, equity and community.
My view is that where there is established educational disadvantage—reflected in race-based statistics—we must never close the door to new, or even radical, educational options for youth.
We have a collective duty to Ontario’s disengaged youth. The consequences of silence and inaction are too great for all of us.
George J. Sefa Dei is professor and chair of the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.