Africentric School’s Moment of Triumph

Royson James, Toronto Star, September 15, 2009

For the 21st straight September morn, the first day of school finds me in the halls of Crawford Adventist Academy. This year, the fourth and last of Jameses enters high school to start the beginning of the end of the cycle.

But another school tugs at the heart this day.

Over at Keele and Sheppard, a bold experiment is beginning. Can a Toronto public school tasked to engage students through the use of an Africentric curriculum, focus and culture succeed in stemming outrageous dropout rates among black students?

Seated on the gym floor in their crisp uniform of white top, black bottoms and African print vest, the 115 student pioneers are part of an extraordinary enterprise. But despite the television cameras, African drums, speeches and other embellishments, the elementary students can’t possibly grasp the importance of the enormous experiment they and their parents have embraced.

Wisely, the school board allows the media horde to record the event. And journalists get a glimpse of the ethos of the place, the spirit and verve that is to empower these students.

Trustee James Pasternak delivers a speech that likely sailed over the students’ heads. It’s worth recording because, other than Angela Wilson and Donna Harrow, the two parents who spearheaded this latest attempt at a special school for the special needs of black students, Pasternak is most responsible for this moment of triumph.

Fellow trustees fought the idea, painted it in unpalatable terms so that the public would rail against it, and finally, voted against its introduction even though school board policy says such schools are essentially a right. But Pasternak and a razor-thin majority stood firm.

“Today, we mark not so much the opening of a new school but the affirmation of an ideal,” Pasternak says.

“Our great responsibility as educators is to ensure that students who enter our system must leave with the knowledge that there are no closed doors, that there are no glass ceilings, and that they have the skills and character to set a course and define their own future.

“We reaffirm today the mission that the school board can be an engine of social change.”

Stripped of all the hand-wringing over the Africentric school, this core remains: Forty per cent of Toronto’s black kids are dropping out of school. That alone is enough for a national inquiry, extensive parental reforms and intervention, and a host of initiatives. It is a crisis unfolding before our eyes as dropouts gun down each other on our streets.

Consider this: That cute Africentric school boy yawning on the front page of the Star last Tuesday will be a much more difficult recruit for a future gang when he’s knocking on the door of a corporate boardroom.

This group of students will graduate–empowered, confident, a class of world-beaters. Why? Because they will leave this school loving themselves, respecting their community, and utterly convinced they can take on the world on society’s terms.

To see them last Tuesday is to believe this.

“You look so beautiful, you’re gorgeous, you’re precious, you’re a gift to this country, this city and the world because you’ll grow up to be leaders,” school official Lloyd McKell tells them.

That’s what Toronto should anticipate at this school. It’s what my Avi gets at Crawford. How exhilarating that it is available to students who’re at such grave risk.

[Editor’s Note: Earlier stories about Toronto’s Afrocentric high school are listed here.]

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