Louise Brown, The Star, July 17, 2014
Lucas Getu isn’t black. The 3-year-old has decided he’s cinnamon.
It’s a distinction that Canada’s largest school board hopes will, in its own small way, help drive down a troubling dropout rate among black students.
The Regent Park preschooler holds a sample of the ground spice up to his short bare arm and sees a perfect colour match — closer than the cocoa, or the nutmeg, or any of the other spices in vials that represent all the subtle shades of brown being celebrated at Canada’s first Africentric pre-kindergarten camp.
Here at this free summertime day program, the Toronto District School Board is using African stories, art, songs and exercises in cultural awareness to boost the pride and sense of identity of children from a community that is still among the most likely to struggle with school.
The 19 children in this pilot project at Nelson Mandela Park Public School — most are black but it’s open to all: a few are South Asian and one is white — made cut-out doll self-portraits on Wednesday, choosing from multiple shades of brown construction paper, which they dressed in swatches of vibrant kente cloth from West Africa.
They matched their skin tones to paint chips with names like “nugget gold” and “pelican tan” and checked out the spice vials displayed under picture books named Shades of People and I Like Myself.
“One little boy told his dad at the end of the day, ‘I’m oatmeal — and you’re chocolate,’” said program co-ordinator Karen Murray, one of five TDSB educators who designed the program for children entering kindergarten this fall.
Loosely based on models in California and Florida, it’s also running this month at one school each in Rexdale, Scarborough and Jane-Finch.
“The dad laughed and asked if that was before or after he gets a tan,” recalled Murray, “and the child said, ‘You’re chocolate all the time.’
“This kind of program gives kids the language to talk about these things in a natural way.”
Originally criticized by some as a form of segregation, the board’s Africentric elementary alternative school is growing, and test scores are on the rise. An Africentrichigh school program is expanding and Africentric courses will be shared with other schools this fall.
But this new experimental four-week program targets kids before even they start kindergarten.
To the sounds of a CD called African Playground, the children painted African masks, learned about African violets, studied snails under a magnifying glass, drummed, listened to a story called Chocolate Me about coping with racist bullying, and assembled jigsaw puzzles that feature black faces, one of them a girl wearing a hijab.
“One of the mothers who wears a hijab actually caressed that puzzle when she saw it,” recalled Murray.
Growing up black in Toronto, kindergarten teacher Kenisha Bynoe admitted: “I didn’t oftentimes see myself reflected in the curriculum, but this is enriching for children to see their history, the history of the African diaspora, reflected in school.”
Bynoe said the fact it has drawn some non-black students is proof the program is inclusive.
“The knowledge we’re building here together is rooted in the diaspora, but it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” she said, “and Africa itself is very diverse.”
Colleen Russell-Rawlins, executive superintendent of early years learning for the TDSB, said the program is meant to let children of colour see themselves reflected in a curriculum that has traditionally been Eurocentric.
“I often think we underestimate the power of seeing yourself represented in the program, but we believe a child must feel their identity is welcomed and affirmed in school,” said Russell-Rawlins, adding that offering different shades of brown paper is no small thing.
“We want them to be proud of representing themselves authentically. We recognize kids become very aware of identity in kindergarten and often don’t know how to talk about their differences. This program gives them positive language to be proud of who they are.”
Identifying their skin colour with pride can help bully-proof these children, noted early childhood educator Roy Bailey, who is black.
“In some parts of society it’s desirable to be lighter, so this lets kids feel proud of themselves whatever their shade. Our program helps kids recognize their shade and celebrate it.”
He looked around the classroom stocked with books like J is for Jamaica and Kenyan song lyrics and African masks, and noted: “This gives children a rich dose of everything they might not see in their classrooms in September.
“It just gives their self-esteem a bit of a boost.”