Posted on July 19, 2006

Black Culture Focus Of School Program Designed To Boost Pride And Marks

Louise Brown, Toronto Star, July 19, 2006

A math unit on racial profiling is part of a new black-focused curriculum expected to be tested by Canada’s largest school board this fall.

The new “Africentric” curriculum is designed to boost pride and test scores among black students. The program, which would include 10 social-studies units, likely will be launched in November in grades 6, 7 and 8 at Brookview Middle School, on Jane St. north of Finch Ave. W.

Any teacher in the city would be free to use the units — roughly two weeks of lessons on a given topic — and they are to be taught to all children in a class, not just black students.

Proposals are being drawn up for similar units in grades 1 to 5. Details of the program are now being discussed by board staff.

The new curriculum is the board’s response to numerous complaints that black students are lagging behind and represents a kind of middle ground in the often emotional debate. Some parents have called for entirely black schools, while others have argued against any race-based curriculum.

The new Africentric social-studies units, written by teachers and funded by Queen’s Park, include lessons on Canada’s first black politicians, black immigration to Canada and prominent black artists, such as composer Nathaniel Dett, who was born in Niagara Falls.

“And we’re looking at a data-management unit that would use statistics about police and racial profiling — possibly from information used in the Toronto Star’s series,” said University of Windsor education professor Andrew Allen, a key consultant on black-focused curriculum.

The Star’s award-winning 2002 series “Race and Crime” showed that blacks arrested by Toronto police are treated more harshly than whites, based on an in-depth analysis of crime statistics.

“The idea is not to get students all worked up about racial profiling, but to allow them to use data about who gets stopped by police to come up with their own conclusions and develop a critical view of the world,” Allen said this week on a visit to the Africentric summer program at Shoreham Public School, near Jane and Finch.

The move marks the first step by the Toronto District School Board toward developing a black-focused program of study that would be available at schools where there is interest or even a need — and possibly, in time, a black-focused school.

These plans are being developed under the guidance of a hefty panel of advisers, including Trustee Stephnie Payne, who is black, several university professors who specialize in black education, board equity watchdog Lloyd McKell and teaching veterans who specialize in diversity.

The school board set up an Africentric advisory committee two years ago to examine the concept of black-focused schooling, which has sparked debate among educators of all colours.

“It was obvious to us that a significant number of black students were not having the success in school we think they should, partly because the curriculum is Eurocentric and they don’t see themselves in the stories and lessons,” said educator Lorna Wiggan, a member of the advisory committee and co-ordinator of the Africentric day camp at Shoreham Public School.

“Teachers know the importance of self-esteem to learning, and if students see themselves identified in stories and music and art, they can start to believe they can be successful,” she said.

The idea of black-focused schools — there are several in the United States — has been suggested in Toronto as a way to appeal to black students who feel disengaged by the standard curriculum.

Allen refutes critics who charge that black-focused curriculum is a throwback to school segregation, arguing it can broaden all children’s perspectives.

“The last thing we want to do is replace a Eurocentric curriculum with an exclusively Africentric approach. We want to respect children of all backgrounds in our curriculum.”

Tiptoeing through the delicate semantic minefield of race-based learning, Allen said Canadians prefer to call their approach “Africentric” rather than “Afro-centric,” a term he said is more popular in the U.S. and conveys a type of program that is less inclusive to non-African students.

Several non-black students are among the 100 attending the five-week Africentric summer program at Shoreham.

Their teachers identified them as needing help in reading or math, and they chose to come, knowing the stories, art and music in the program will focus on African heritage.

“Africa’s sort of interesting, but I like my background, too — in Vietnam we have big beaches and a lot of Buddhist gods,” said 10-year-old Khoa Mai, one of five students of Vietnamese background.

Ethiopian-born Walid Douri said he sometimes wishes he didn’t have to go to the summer program, “but my mom didn’t give me any choice, and my writing is starting to get a bit better.”

“But we’re learning lots about Africa — they have thousands of languages there, and there are parts that are bad, that have starving people,” said Walid, 11, as he worked on a math problem based on ancient textile patterns from Ghana.

“But there’s more to Africa than the starving people. It’s quite beautiful and they have animals, and the people act nice.”