Toronto’s first Afrocentric Alternative School registering students: Concerns on workability of the school still firing up

Last May, it was after fierce debates and with a narrow vote that the Toronto District School Board approved the first black focused alternative school to open in September 2009. Accordingly, this school, which will be integrated in the existing Sheppard Public School compound, has started signing up students for Junior Kindergarten up to Grade 5. The number of students registered up to now is far less than expected.

The idea behind such a school was initiated as one of the solutions to curve the 40% dropout rate among black students. The proponents assert that having black teachers as role models and providing students with Afrocentric teaching would inspire them to stay in school.  As stated by the school body, the school will follow the mandated Ontario Curriculum, focusing on ‘teaching philosophy, curriculum, and school environment which truly reflect the diverse experiences and histories of people of African Descent’.

As the proposal was confronted with intense oppositions from the start, concerns on the workability of this school are still heating up. The idea doesn’t resonate with many people, who think that putting black kids in a separate school is a regressive move in Canadian race relations history. Others think that it is an insult for black kids to assume that they can’t be successful in the existing system as other kids do. Some claim that the idea is a trial to copy down African American alternative schools, which they don’t expect to work in the Canadian context. Others rage at the fact that the notion of a black focused school would further alienate the potential students from the real world and leave them open to failure when they face the mainstream culture that wouldn’t of course offer them black focused colleges or black focused jobs.  Some even go far in suggesting that such a race-based approach will add up to the violence culture that is flaming in the city, in which black youth are victims and offenders at the same time.

Supporters of the Afrocentric School argue that the existing system has failed black students, which is exhibited in the high dropout rate among the group. They also argue that the alternative school, which will open to kids from all races, doesn’t perpetuate segregation but rather provides an alternative environment and ways of teaching where black and other kids are welcome in a way they can identify themselves in global cultures in the classroom.

When we take a quick look at history, we can see that Ontario had its separate publicly funded black school that were alive until 1964. Some try to make their points by demanding if the current Afrocentric School wouldn’t mean bringing back those years of segregation. Their opponents, however, stress that there is a big difference between ‘voluntary separation’ and ‘forced segregation’.

Between all of this, the one big fact that stands out is that black and other minority students are not doing well in the existing school system. When it comes to the causes that are related to this naked fact, however, we don’t find a clear answer. Some studies put the blame on the students’ lack of interest in education. Others underline that family background and low parental involvement are behind the black youth failure. Some say the euro-centred curriculum that mainly focus on white middle class perspectives discourages minority students from becoming active participants. A study conducted in 2004 on racial profiling and zero tolerance, however, tried to understand the problem from the point of view of the black students themselves. The result shows that the students highly feel marginalized by the school authority system. They said they are viewed as ‘problems, socially dysfunctional, threats’ and are given punishments that they say are not proportional with their white counterparts.

All the above stated reasons could be potential contributors for the failure of black students. The big challenge is agreeing on the potential solutions. Would putting black students in different classes be the answer? Would black students be interested in school if the curriculum includes black history and contributions?

There are no simplistic answers to these questions. When it comes to Afrocentric issues in the curriculum, many looked at the decision taken by the TDSB as clumsy, since it didn’t try to seek a deep rooted solution that would open the whole system to change.  Instead of pushing a minority group out of the system claiming they have different interests, why not improve the existing system, why not include black perspectives to the existing curriculum, why not fashion a new way of teaching that encourage all students (not only blacks) to challenge given perspectives? This would of course pose lots of challenges. Some even disagree on what Afrocentic education means and doubt the competence of the would be teachers in grasping an Afrocentric teaching methodology since they are the products of the Eurocentric education system themselves.

Regarding the school environment that is hostile to the kids at risk, many are asking why can’t the TDSB rather work on initiating a welcoming environment within the existing schools? Many think that it would be more logical to hire more black and other minority teachers in the exiting schools. Professional developments for educators targeted to fight prejudices, assumptions and beliefs against black students would be instrumental.

Those cannot be complete answers. Education starts from home. The general loss of interest in education exhibited by black youth can’t be denied. Parental involvement would contribute in a significant way and change is needed in the whole environment that surrounds these kids. As a vast majority of Canadian black families fall within the low income class, they have to work over time to make ends meet. Parents therefore might not focus on what their kids’ surrounding are and who their kids are following as role models.  Parents might not notice the rappers’ influence on their kids’ lives, sending messages that school is not cool and failing is ok. Look at this as an example from a Rap music entitled ‘Just got my report card’. It goes:U kno when you just in school and you like god damn this too much homework u like What the *** man I cant do all this shit anymore what, whats the problem so much **** homework’

This shows we all have a lot of home work to do. For Torontonian black parents who are in a dilemma whether they should send their children to the new Afrocentric school or not, we would say start acting by scrutinizing what songs are loaded in your kids iPods and the kind of TV programs they frequent. What would you suggest?

As for the Afrocentric elementary school to be opened in fall 2009, we hope it would be used as a testing pot to demonstrate the notion and prove or disprove its mission to help direct the future in saving the black youth. We also invite you, our readers, to have your say on the matter.

Yohana Otite

Yohana Otite is the co-founder of BornBlack and writers on issues that revolve around the intersection of race, gender and class. Yohana also manages the Hamilton DiverseCity onBoard program at Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.

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