In a tight vote, Toronto District School Board trustees Tuesday night approved a contentious proposal for a black-focused school that opponents argued would be the equivalent of segregation.
The 11-9 vote in favour came after an evening of impassioned pleas both for and against the school from community members, including one from the mother of slain 15-year-old Jordan Manners.
Tuesday night’s vote means that an alternative Afro-centric school will open in the city in September, 2009, but its location and grade levels are still to be determined.
“This is a bold decision. We’re opening ourselves up for real change in the system,” trustee Michael Coteau, said after the vote.
Angela Wilson, a community member who brought the idea forward, added: “It’s a bittersweet thing because it should have happened a long time ago and it shouldn’t have brought all this pain back to our black community.”
Trustee Josh Matlow, who opposed the motion, said that it would simply lead to more divisiveness among students.
“We don’t believe that students should be divided by race, even if it’s with the best of intentions,” he said.
Earlier in the evening, Loreen Small, Jordan’s mother, urged trustees to quash the proposal.
“Black school is segregation,” Ms. Small said. “It’s not right.”
She was among 20 speakers who addressed trustees on the issue. Her son, Jordan, was shot to death in the hallway of C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in North York last May.
About 200 people packed a boardroom and an overflow room Tuesday night, along with the media, to hear the conclusion of the long-simmering debate.
Speakers in favour of the school said it’s misleading to equate it to segregation of black students.
“It’s not about segregation, it’s about self-determination,” said Ms. Wilson, who first proposed the idea to the school board.
Another speaker, Arlo Kempf, a father and former teacher, said that the board approving a black-focused school would be something “courageous.”
“Seeing themselves [black students] in the curriculum, in their instructors is what’s needed,” Mr. Kempf said.
But Courtney Betty, a Toronto lawyer, argued that creating such a school would be failing students.
“We cannot look at knee-jerk, Band-Aid solutions any longer,” Mr. Betty said.
Others added that the proposal offered few specific details.
TDSB statistics reveal that many black students are struggling. The dropout rate for students of English-speaking Caribbean descent is highest among all groups at 40 per cent compared with 23 per cent for those with Canadian roots, according to tracking data of a cohort of students between 2000 and 2005.
The proposal for the Afrocentric alternative school was in response to a request submitted in July by members of the black community, who were alarmed by the high dropout rate.
“We recognize that opening one school is not going to solve the problem, but we are committed to closing the achievement gap,” Christopher Usih, a superintendent at the board and one of the authors of the proposal, said in an interview Tuesday.
Trustees Tuesday night voted on four recommendations that come with an initial price tag of $820,000:
– Open a black-focused alternative school in September, 2009, and set up a team to determine such things as grade level, location and appropriate curriculum.
– Set up a three-year pilot program in three existing schools that will integrate the history, culture and experiences of blacks in society.
– Team up with York University and other postsecondary institutions to establish a centre for staff development, research and innovation to track data and test best practices to help marginalized and vulnerable students.
– Have the director of education look at other proposals and develop an action plan for improving achievement among underperforming students.
The idea for a black-focused school has been around since at least 1995, when a royal commission recommended it.
However, Premier Dalton McGuinty has expressed reservations about a black-focused school in Toronto. It will be the second such school in Canada: An elementary school in the predominately black community of North Preston, N.S., has an Afro-centric philosophy.
Education Minister Kathleen Wynne fears that it will spur other cultural and religious groups to lobby for their own separate schools within a public system.
“My preference is that we have all our kids learning together,” Ms. Wynne said in an interview before Tuesday night’s board meeting.
“My preference is the initiatives around curriculum are expanded,” she said.One Grade 11 student attending Jarvis Collegiate Institute echoed that sentiment.
“There’s no need to make a whole different school for just black people; you can just make certain programs in regular schools and get them focused there,” said Jamaal Thomas, who was making his way to class yesterday.
He said that students are taught some black history in schools, “but it could be a little bit more. All we have is, what, Black History month? So we could get more in some other months.”
Toronto District School Board trustees approved creating the province’s first publicly funded Africentric school last night but not by much.
Trustees voted 11-9 in favor of the measure after four hours of delegations and debate.
More than 20 speakers tried to rally both for and against the black-focused alternative school during the special board meeting. At least 18 trustees spoke to the motions to create the school along with placing Africentric curriculum in three other schools.
“We’re happy but the struggle continues,” parent Angela Wilson said after the vote. “We have layers and layers of things to do. This is not the only thing so stay tuned.”
Wilson and community worker Donna Harrow originally asked the board to create the school. They still would like to see it open this September, not the proposed date one year later.
“Getting a bunch of trustees to say yes to something is only the beginning,” Harrow said. “We will continue to keep them committed to this.”
Trustee Michael Coteau voted in favor of the motion although he admits he initially opposed the concept.
“I think this is the beginning stage of really looking at the issues that affect the black community,” he said.
“This is not a final solution to a huge problem that not only effects the black communities but all Torontonians.”
“I think the board made an error in judgment,” Trustee Josh Matlow said after voting against creating the school. “I think we have in principle divided our system by the colour of one’s skin . . . however, now that we’ve made a decision we can’t allow this to fail.”
The two student trustees spoke out against the schools and symbolically voted against them. Student trustee votes aren’t counted.
Education director Gerry Connelly applauded the vote.
“These decisions will help provide environments that will motivate and inspire our students, re-engaging them and closing the achievement gap,” Connelly stated in a press release issued just after the vote.
Board officials will hold a press conference today to discuss the board’s next steps.
Before the vote, Harrow told trustees there has been plenty of heated debate but no real talk about the actual plan they proposed.
NOT FOR BLACKS ONLY
The proposal was not for a black-focused school with only black students, teachers and curriculum, Harrow said.
“This is a school where all children could come in and be nurtured and supported into success,” Harrow said angrily. “No one ever said little white children couldn’t come.”
No other alternative school endured this kind of debate, she charged.
“We as black people are being asked to shuffle through a process that was made by the TDSB.
“This has turned into a fiasco,” Harrow said.
Trustees were looking at four staff recommendations aimed at improving black students’ success, including the creation of the alternative school to open in September 2009, along with Africentric pilot programs at three existing schools.
The recommendations would cost $820,000.
“You don’t know what we want or perhaps you don’t know what is right, but we know what is best,” Winston LaRose, of the Jane-Finch Concerned Citizens Organization, told trustees.
Vickie McPhee of the group Rights Watch argued there should be a black-focused school in each of Toronto’s 22 ridings. “This is not about segregation. Our children are segregated in the public education system,” she said. “Our children are disengaged. They’re handcuffed.”