Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Afrocentric schools in Toronto

My article on Afrocentric schools in Toronto appears in the new issue of Passion Magazine, on newsstands now.

Going Beyond Black or White

Forty percent of Toronto’s black youth aren’t graduating from high school. Is an Afrocentric school the solution or a part of the problem?

By Andrea Warner

Amidst a media feeding frenzy, Torontonians Angela Wilson and Donna Harrow became unlikely spokespeople for the biggest education controversy to hit the city in years. For the past several months, school board meetings have served as the backdrop for the heated debate over Wilson and Harrow’s proposed Afrocentric schools. In January, a narrow majority voted 11-9 in favour of one school to be opened in 2009. Reaction has been mixed, to put it mildly.

The proposed Afrocentric school aims to provide an alternative for black youth who are falling through the cracks of the current administration —approximately 40 percent of Toronto’s black youth do not graduate from high school — by creating a curriculum that is more engaging. Louis March, a spokesperson for the African Community Heritage Association, feels the timing is crucial.

“There was a survey recently of 110,000 students in Toronto, and 75 percent of them said they don’t see themselves reflected in the curriculum. The colour, the shape of the students in Toronto is changing,” March says. “You cannot be talking about African history and just put two pages in about slavery. You have to be honest to history in its totality.”

Josh Matlow, a Toronto District School Board trustee, opposes the creation of an Afrocentric school. His website features lengthy blog entries and media clips on the subject, while his group on Facebook, the social networking website, is titled Don’t Divide Our Students By Race. To date, the group has 128 members.

“We have 558 public schools in Toronto, and we have black students in virtually every one of them. I don’t believe that going down this road will respond to the core challenge of helping black students or all students in our schools,” Matlow says. “The premise is a positive one, and it’s vital to change the way we teach kids about African and black peoples’ histories. However, I think it’s just as important to teach white kids, other kids, as it is to teach black children. Black students need to learn about themselves and their own identity, but all other students should learn to respect black heritage as well.”

The obstacles to graduation facing black youth in Toronto are plentiful: poverty, stress on single parent families, and the lure of gangs and violence to name just a few. Akiela Clarke is currently finishing her grade 12 year. She is one of the students for whom the system has worked, but she attributes that success to her mother’s strong influence and involvement in the academic process.

“I was fortunate to have parents who were pushing me, parents who went to university. [These other youth] don’t always have parents saying, ‘Go and do your homework,’” Clarke says. “Everything that I have learned wasn’t from school because school is taught from a Eurocentric curriculum, and everything I’ve learned is from an Afrocentric curriculum, and that’s what made me be strong. But, many of these students are not like me; they don’t have the same parenting background as me, so they don’t have that approach to learning.”

The academic challenges facing black youth have the potential to manifest more serious problems in the future. “Eight out of ten people in the provincial parole system in Ontario did not finish grade 12, so we know there’s a strong likelihood where they’re going to end up — in gangs, violence,” March says.

Preventative measures to help black youth succeed have become a top priority for many people. But, one question on March’s mind is how an Afrocentric school would be different than Toronto’s 36 existing alternative high schools?

“The school system is working for maybe 90 or 95 percent of the students. But there’s a student body there that is having major problems engaging in the system, so you don’t change the whole system because of 5 or 10 percent.

“You set up an alternative school because all students do not learn the same. And the government recognizes that, and that’s why they already have 36 alternative schools in Toronto, so it surprises us that we have to do a song and dance for 37. The school board identified the community that was having problems, and they set up a school for them, so that they can feel total or full in the education process,” March says.

TDSB trustee Matlow’s website currently touts a new arts-focused public school that promotes a “middle-school experience in an enriched arts environment.” Ultimately, he fully supports alternative schools, but feels an Afrocentric school crosses the line by dividing kids by skin colour.

“It would be a school that’s created for black students. You would never see anything in our policy that would say ‘black school only,’ and it’s not accurate when people say this would be a black only school,” Matlow says. “However, in practice it probably will be. But, if the premise of the creation of the school is to respond to the challenges we’re facing because there are too many black kids dropping out, it’s a reasonable assumption that it would be attracting primarily black enrollment. By doing that, we are creating a division based on race.”

This is one of the primary questions circling the school proposal: Is Toronto setting a dangerous precedent for race-based schools? Opponents to the school believe yes. In reading through the various news stories and discussion groups online, one word forms the foundation for much of the opposition: “segregation.”

Seventeen-year-old Clarke sees the Afrocentric school as a possible solution not a throwback to segregation. “People need to define what segregation is,” she states. “No one’s being forced. Segregation is the act of being forced to go somewhere beyond your will, and that’s what happened in civil rights. Many people use the argument that we’re taking a step back. No, it’s not a step back, it’s a step forward because how are we supposed to integrate if we don’t know ourselves?”

Matlow isn’t convinced. His website urges parents to contact their trustees to oppose the school, and the concerns he voices resonate with others who oppose the project.

“To say that an Afrocentric curriculum is what will connect them with their presumed culture is narrow. It doesn’t consider the individual well enough,” Matlow explains. “To divide students by the colour of their skin, to perpetuate artificial divisions is wrong for any reason. We want to teach kids that they can find love, support and care within a community that has a whole variety of different faces.”

March admits that the proposed school may not be perfect, but that it’s worth the effort if they can reach out to even a few at-risk youth.

“If we can save 1, 2, 3, 5, 10 kids, it will be worth it. Ninety to ninety-five percent of the students are doing fine, so this discussion is not for them. Either you’re doing well in the system or you have the socio-economic support to fill in the gaps,” March says. “For these kids, it’s not there. So, let’s do something about it. Let’s step up and let’s demonstrate wisdom and courage. Let’s monitor it and if there are aspects you can incorporate into the overall school system then do it. Of course we fear this failing because everyone will be lining up to say, ‘I told you so.’ But please do it right so that it has a fighting chance of succeeding, so our kids have a fighting chance of succeeding.”

It’s difficult to determine what will most benefit at-risk minority youth, but it’s an issue that requires creative innovation to ensure doors are open to every child. One thing is for certain: the answers are no more black or white than they are right or wrong.

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