After years of debate that has divided communities of every colour, Toronto’s public school board voted tonight to open an Africentric alternative school in September 2009. The junior kindergarten to Grade 5 school—believed to be a first in Canada—is expected to help tackle a 40 per cent dropout rate among black students.
Approved by a 13-8 vote after a heated debate in which one trustee called another a racist, the school will be located in an empty wing of Sheppard Public School on Sheppard Ave. W. near Keele St.
The board also voted to study the feasibility of opening an Africentric high school in the future, but rejected a proposal to do so by September 2010, a timeline trustee Irene Atkinson called “absurdly” short.
“We want to get it right, and a high school program is completely different from elementary school.”
The Africentric grade school will seek to hire a number of black teachers and use a more global, less Europe-focused curriculum to engage more students of colour. It will be open to children of all backgrounds from anywhere in the city.
“This is an excellent start, a good thing,” said Donna Harrow, one of two parents who spearheaded the push for the school. Although disappointed the board did not schedule an Africentric high shcool for 2010, Harrow said “it’s important for us to start working on the real issues. The struggle continues.”
Trustee James Pasternak, whose ward includes the school, held a thumbs up sign after the vote, and said kids eager to start at the Africentric school in 2009 could move to Sheppard this fall to get used to the building and community.
However, emotions ran high, with trustee Maria Rodrigues, who supports the school, accusing trustee Josh Matlow of being racist in his opposition to the school, and refused to apologize.
Those who voted against the school were: Matlow, Stephnie Payne, Howard Goodman, Scott Harrison, Chris Tonk, John Hastings, Soo Wong and Mari Rutka.
Unlike the freestanding model common in dozens of U.S. cities and urged by many local proponents, board staff drafted what it called a “made-in-Toronto” blueprint that will open in an unused wing of a larger underenrolled school.
It is a model Premier Dalton McGuinty has said he prefers to a school in a separate building, although he has made it clear he opposes any public school focused on one culture.
Children in the new Africentric school likely will enter Sheppard through the same front door, share a lunch room, playground and library and join the same after-school club and teams.
If interest proves strong, Sheppard has enough empty rooms to accommodate classes up to Grade 8. The site of an Africentric high school could also be located in an underenrolled high school.
Grace-Edward Galabuzi, a Ryerson professor, said he was pleased with the vote for an elementary school, “but we’ll have to keep working on the continuum, right through to Grade 12.” He said he was disappointed there was no start date for the high school.
Trustee Bruce Davis opposed a move to scratch plans for the high school.
“If you kill this idea, we’ll be giving children a path up to a certain grade and then giving them no where else to go.”
Staff need time to study the more complex high school system with its compulsory credits, Davis said.
The idea of an Africentric school has been in and out of the spotlight since Ontario’s Royal Commission on Learning in 1995 cited it as one possible fix for the stubborn dropout rate among students of colour.
It was raised anew in 2005 at a public forum on black achievement by education professor George Dei, who studies black youth disengagement. The idea gained steam last year when two local mothers argued Africentric schools could be a sort of academic test lab with lessons for mainstream schools.
While Angela Wilson and Harrow said their dream is to have an Africentric alternative school in each corner of Toronto, they cheered the vote as a start.
Trustees agreed that the school will need at least enough students for two classes of consecutive grades, with about 22 students each, in order to be viable. The board will start taking applications this fall.