G&M report on Africentric school

Black-focused school wins approval
CAROLINE ALPHONSO AND JAMES BRADSHAW Globe and Mail     January 30, 2008

TORONTO — In a tight vote, Toronto District School Board trustees Tuesday night approved a contentious proposal for a black-focused school that opponents argued would be the equivalent of segregation.  The 11-9 vote in favour came after an evening of impassioned pleas both for and against the school from community members, including one from the mother of slain 15-year-old Jordan Manners.

Tuesday night's vote means that an alternative Afro-centric school will open in the city in September, 2009, but its location and grade levels are still to be determined.

“This is a bold decision. We're opening ourselves up for real change in the system,” trustee Michael Coteau, said after the vote.

Angela Wilson, a community member who brought the idea forward, added: “It's a bittersweet thing because it should have happened a long time ago and it shouldn't have brought all this pain back to our black community.”

Trustee Josh Matlow, who opposed the motion, said that it would simply lead to more divisiveness among students.

“We don't believe that students should be divided by race, even if it's with the best of intentions,” he said.

Earlier in the evening, Loreen Small, Jordan's mother, urged trustees to quash the proposal.

“Black school is segregation,” Ms. Small said. “It's not right.”

She was among 20 speakers who addressed trustees on the issue. Her son, Jordan, was shot to death in the hallway of C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in North York last May.

About 200 people packed a boardroom and an overflow room Tuesday night, along with the media, to hear the conclusion of the long-simmering debate.

Speakers in favour of the school said it's misleading to equate it to segregation of black students.

“It's not about segregation, it's about self-determination,” said Ms. Wilson, who first proposed the idea to the school board.

Another speaker, Arlo Kempf, a father and former teacher, said that the board approving a black-focused school would be something “courageous.”

“Seeing themselves [black students] in the curriculum, in their instructors is what's needed,” Mr. Kempf said.

But Courtney Betty, a Toronto lawyer, argued that creating such a school would be failing students.

“We cannot look at knee-jerk, Band-Aid solutions any longer,” Mr. Betty said.

Others added that the proposal offered few specific details.

TDSB statistics reveal that many black students are struggling. The dropout rate for students of English-speaking Caribbean descent is highest among all groups at 40 per cent compared with 23 per cent for those with Canadian roots, according to tracking data of a cohort of students between 2000 and 2005.

The proposal for the Afrocentric alternative school was in response to a request submitted in July by members of the black community, who were alarmed by the high dropout rate.

“We recognize that opening one school is not going to solve the problem, but we are committed to closing the achievement gap,” Christopher Usih, a superintendent at the board and one of the authors of the proposal, said in an interview Tuesday.

Trustees Tuesday night voted on four recommendations that come with an initial price tag of $820,000:

– Open a black-focused alternative school in September, 2009, and set up a team to determine such things as grade level, location and appropriate curriculum.

– Set up a three-year pilot program in three existing schools that will integrate the history, culture and experiences of blacks in society.

– Team up with York University and other postsecondary institutions to establish a centre for staff development, research and innovation to track data and test best practices to help marginalized and vulnerable students.

– Have the director of education look at other proposals and develop an action plan for improving achievement among underperforming students.

The idea for a black-focused school has been around since at least 1995, when a royal commission recommended it.

However, Premier Dalton McGuinty has expressed reservations about a black-focused school in Toronto. It will be the second such school in Canada: An elementary school in the predominately black community of North Preston, N.S., has an Afro-centric philosophy.

Education Minister Kathleen Wynne fears that it will spur other cultural and religious groups to lobby for their own separate schools within a public system.

“My preference is that we have all our kids learning together,” Ms. Wynne said in an interview before Tuesday night's board meeting.

“My preference is the initiatives around curriculum are expanded,” she said.One Grade 11 student attending Jarvis Collegiate Institute echoed that sentiment.

“There's no need to make a whole different school for just black people; you can just make certain programs in regular schools and get them focused there,” said Jamaal Thomas, who was making his way to class yesterday.

He said that students are taught some black history in schools, “but it could be a little bit more. All we have is, what, Black History month? So we could get more in some other months.”