Board shouldn’t shy away from `black’ schoo

Toronto Star Jan 28, 2008   Royson James

The Toronto District School Board this week votes on a staff recommendation supporting the 2009 start-up of a black-focused school in northwest Toronto.

Wisdom, common sense, justice and board policy dictate that school trustees vote "Yes."

What's needed when the trustees meet, starting tomorrow, is not a grudging, apologetic "we are forced into this" type of vote, but a bold embrace of an option that may be a life-saving choice for disengaged and disaffected black youths.

It's not a panacea, not nearly the solution to a massive, multi-level problem. But for a public institution charged with teaching youths and preparing them for productive lives, it is a journey the board must begin if it is to reverse an abysmal record of failed education.

The fact is, 4 in 10 students of Caribbean descent are not graduating from high school. This cries out for a remedy. And alternate proposals being proffered are equally untried and without guarantee. Meanwhile, we know the status quo has not worked and will not work.

Those who point to parental influence as the greatest determinant of a student's success are on to something. But school boards don't choose the parents of their students. They work with what they get.

The rest of us – churches, public organizations, service clubs, and especially families in the black community (an idea that rankles some) – must lend a huge, caring, restorative hand. But what's before the TDSB is how it might address a clear and present danger to a clear and specific group.

Trustees must set aside the opinions that insultingly term such a school "segregationist." The proposed school is open to everyone. The board is not urging, compelling, or streamlining black students to attend such a school. It is NOT a black-only school.

Drawing from a broad spectrum of approaches to black-focused schools, the Toronto experiment would likely feature a staff that's majority black; an Africentric curriculum that propagates a world view that's positive toward and supportive of African peoples; instill African values; include an approach to interpersonal relationships that is more disciplinary and "conservative" than contemporary western thought; likely require students to wear uniforms; include a spiritual consciousness as opposed to organized religion; and seek the resources and assistance of a supportive academic and broader black community.

In essence, it is a way of concentrating the impact and effect of a community that is historically weak and relatively powerless – a way of counterbalancing the absence of strong family units in too many of the students' homes.

Some raise the segregation bogeyman out of ignorance. They forget segregation laws forced blacks to live separate and unequal lives. Others are disingenuous and worthy of contempt for miscasting the issue by painting a loathsome image bound to make citizens recoil.

For decades, some black parents have advocated such schools, similar to alternative schools. The school board dare not, should not, shy away from this historic step.

To say no is to ignore the dismal performance of our schools when it comes to educating black students. And the main reason would be to mollify citizens uncomfortable with race-based issues.

The TDSB has 33 alternative schools serving 4,852 aboriginal, gay, gifted, artistic and other "exceptional" students. Board policy states that if parents ask for an alternative school the board is duty-bound to consider such. They're asking. So, what's stopping us?