Africentric studies buoy school

 In News

Inspiring pilot-test courses get high marks from students, teachers
Toronto Star   Jan 29, 2008 Louise Brown   Education Reporter

Emily Canfield already knows what Africentric schooling might look like in Toronto – she took special Africentric Grade 7 math lessons last year as part of a pilot project at Brookview Middle School in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood.

She says it was exciting to learn that Africa is the cradle of humanity – for all races – where archeologists found the oldest human skeleton; not Europe, as she believed.

Her class practised theories of probability using numbers from the Star's 2002 series on racial profiling. They plotted circle graphs to track the countries of origin of Canada's black immigrants.

It was all just "so interesting," recalled the 13-year-old yesterday.

So if the Toronto District School Board votes tonight to start an alternative school with an African perspective? Count her in, she says.

Emily is white.

"It's interesting for anybody to learn this," said the soft-spoken student, who describes her heritage as Irish. "And besides, I have friends who are black."

As trustees prepare to vote on whether to set up an alternative school next year that would teach the Ontario curriculum with a focus on the contributions of Africans and African-Canadians, hundreds of students already have a sense of how those courses might feel.

The Toronto board tested Africentric lessons last year in social studies, math, history, dance and music in 45 classes in Grades 6, 7 and 8 across several dozen schools, in a bid to make the curriculum more relevant and engaging for black students who tend to drop out in higher numbers than children of other backgrounds.

At Brookview, the courses are believed to have been one reason test scores went up and suspensions went down over the last year, along with a dynamic new principal who has toughened the rules, brightened the halls and greets students with a smile and a wave of his old-fashioned school bell.

Toronto lawyer Julian Falconer urged this kind of African-centred curriculum in his recent report on school safety, prompted by the shooting death last May of 15-year-old Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate. Manners went to Brookview Middle School.

Now, as board staff fine-tune the Africentric pilot courses for possible future use, Brookview students and teachers say they want these courses back, and more of them because they are part of a new sense of optimism at the school.

"These courses aren't like segregation. An Africentric school wouldn't be like segregation," argues Arnelle Collison, 13, who is black. "Segregation was by force – this kind of school wouldn't be by force. And it's not only interesting for blacks; it would help everyone be more open-minded."

Math teacher Darlene Jones said in nine years at the school, she has never seen children so engaged by math as they were with the Africentric unit. Even struggling students did better.

"I just loved how they were engaged; it was very exciting because it was all new information about Africa. Not just the big bellies of poverty and hunger, but accomplishments and things to be proud of."

While Brookview's principal, Karl Subban, agrees the Africentric curriculum is popular, he said it's not a magic bullet in a community struggling with poverty and anger, and where kids don't often see themselves going on to higher education.

Only after you have inspired kids to want to come to class can you focus on what to teach, he said.

"The most important thing we're focusing on is building a kind and caring school community," said Subban, standing in front of one of the murals he has had painted with the new Brookview values of responsibility, respect, punctuality, organization and high expectations.

Falconer's report cites Brookview as a "vision of hope," which went from a rundown, demoralized school with the highest suspension rate of all elementary schools in Toronto to a model of success, where the new "Brookview Way" enforces basic values – no hitting, no name-calling – as well as pride in students' accomplishments as well as their African heritage.

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