Admitting it is failing some students of colour, the Toronto public board could open a black-focused school as early as next fall.
Two community meetings are planned in the next week to discuss the idea of an “African-centred alternative school” from junior kindergarten to Grade 8 that would have more black teachers, black mentors, more focus on students’ heritage and more parent involvement.
A staff report is expected later this month with details on how the concept would work. If trustees approve such a school, it would be a first for Ontario and possibly Canada, although there are some in the United States in cities such as Detroit, Washington and Kansas City.
“Whatever is being used in the system at this moment is failing a lot of students—and more specifically a lot of black students,” said Donna Harrow, a community worker who is behind the push for such a school, along with Etobicoke parent Angela Wilson.
Black-focused schools have been a lightning rod issue both inside and outside Ontario’s black community since they were first proposed in 1995 by the province’s Royal Commission on Learning as a way to address lower graduation rates among black students.
Two years ago a call for black-focused schools in Toronto caused an uproar between those who warned they smack of segregation and those who believe that black students who study more black authors, scientists and thinkers; have more black teachers as role models; and attend schools that set clear, high expectations of black students can fight the alienation some black teens say leads them to drop out of mainstream schools.
“For us, it’s important to try something else,” said Harrow. “Many parents from the Islands or from Africa, they’ve actually gone through an Africentric way of teaching” back home which includes using mentors from the community.
“It’s building up students’ self-esteem by showing them that there are other black people in the neighbourhood who are successful, who are doing well and who will care for them in a supportive manner.”
Harrow said the Toronto District School Board is “very supportive and interested in working toward having a school up and running in September,” and that possible locations are being scouted.
The board has been piloting several “Africentric” social studies units in Grades 6, 7 and 8 at a handful of schools in the northwest part of the city and has run an Africentric summer camp near Jane and Finch in recent summers.
At the summer camp last year, for example, students learned that Picasso based much of his work on masks from the Congo, that Africa had a university long before Europe—in Morocco—and students based a math grid on the patterns of lush “kente” cloth from Ghana’s royalty.
The Toronto board already has a grade school and high school for First Nations students and an alternative high school for gay and lesbian teens.
Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty opposed the notion of black-focused schools in 2005, after more than 500 parents and students called for such schools at a public forum on black achievement in Toronto. Noting he was “not comfortable with that concept,” McGuinty said at the time: “I’m much more comfortable with the concept of bringing children from a variety of backgrounds together.”
At a Toronto school board discussion of the idea in June, some trustees warned it could fracture the school system, but Education Director Gerry Connelly insisted the status quo isn’t working. “We are not serving our African students well,” Connelly told trustees. “There is evidence having a school of this kind does make a difference.”
The school would teach the Ontario curriculum, but parents have asked that it emphasize leadership, have a strong mentoring program and prepare students to see university as their first choice, as well as have an Africentric focus.
Parents have asked the board for three such schools—in the east, west and south ends of Toronto—with at least one eventually going from kindergarten to Grade 12, with the hope older students would mentor younger ones.
Sociology professor George Dei, one of Canada’s top researchers on black achievement, calls the idea of an experimental black-focused school “long overdue.”
“Let’s try it and see if it works, and if it does, let’s transfer those lessons to mainstream schools,” said Dei, chair of Equity In Education Studies at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Not all teachers would have to be black, he noted, but black teachers are important role models and would be less likely to have lower expectations for black students—a problem he says is “huge” in mainstream schools.
“Black students tell us that teachers often give up on them so easily; they don’t treat them as serious students,” said Dei yesterday in a telephone interview from Ghana, where he is on sabbatical.
“It’s not about hiring just any teacher who is black, but you do want teachers willing to go the extra mile, and it is crucial to have more black role models in positions of power.”
The community meetings will be held Thursday at 7 p.m. at North Albion Collegiate on Kipling Ave. north of Finch Ave. W., and Monday at 7 p.m. at Northview Heights Secondary School on Finch Ave. W.