On Campus

Afrocentric schools gets the go-ahead for 2009

Hopes high following bitter debate to create Afrocentric school in Toronto

In the aftermath of a bitter and often gut-wrenching debate that preceded the decision to set up a public Afrocentric school in Toronto, hopes were riding high Thursday that black students who struggle academically might finally be getting the educational boost they desperately need.Community leaders fret that the pilot project dare not fail.

“We have one shot to make this right,” said Louis March, of the African Canadian Heritage Association.

“If we fail at this, where to we go next?”

On Wednesday, Toronto’s public school board voted to open its first Afrocentric alternative school in hopes of lowering the 40 per cent dropout rate among Toronto’s black teens.

While the school will be open to all students, the aim is to have black teachers and a curriculum that engages black kids when it takes in its first junior kindergarten to Grade 5 students in September 2009.

The board also decided to study the feasibility of opening an Afrocentric high school, which March argued is even more critically needed than a grade school.

“We’re not addressing the core group that needs the help right now,” March said of black high school students.

“(Even) the 60 per cent that are passing, a big majority of them have a diploma that’s worthless because the curriculum has been dumbed down to get them out of the school system.”

Opponents of an Afrocentric school, both inside and outside the black community, argue it represents a giant step backward from the integration ideal of the civil rights movement. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has expressed opposition, saying kids should “learn together and grow together.”

Not surprisingly, emotions ran high during the trustees’ debate Wednesday – which ended with a 13-8 vote in favour – with one accusing another of being racist for opposing the school.

The temperature of a similar debate in Prince George, B.C., has been far lower amid plans for the province’s first aboriginal-centred public school, which hopes to address far higher failure rates for First Nations and Metis students.

Lois Boone, vice-chairwoman of the district’s board of education, said the public has been supportive.

“The general population understands that we have to do something differently,” Boone said.

“They’re willing to look at anything (because) they know that what we’ve done so far hasn’t worked.”

George Dei, a professor of sociology and equity studies at the University of Toronto, said those who denounce the proposed Afrocentric school as a return to segregation misunderstand the concept.

This is not about “balkanizing” schools, he said, but trying to find positive solutions to a long-standing, seemingly intractable problem.

“We cannot put our head in the sand,” Dei said. “We should try something different and see if it works.

“We don’t have anything to lose when we have these high drop-out rates and other problems with youth in the schools.”

Marcus Tabachnick, president of the Canadian School Boards Association, said boards across the country will be keeping an eye on the Toronto experiment.

“I’m sure that what we’re going to see over the next number of years are some very creative and new efforts to combat drop-out problems,” Tabachnick said.

The Ontario Public School Boards Association said no other boards are actively looking at setting up their own Afrocentric or similarly focused schools.

However, the association plans to monitor how the new school in Toronto plays out to see what practices might be of use elsewhere, said president Colleen Schenk.

-with a report from CP

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.