Student-focused schools: Are Africentred schools the solution to disengaged students?

Aboriginal artwork
Aboriginal artwork adorns the walls of First Nations Public School.

Black-focused schools may be available to students in Toronto as early as September, but you won’t find Savan Beda’s biracial, third-grade daughter, Shayanne, at any of them.

“I totally disagree with black-focused schools,” Beda says. “I wouldn’t want to segregate her and make her focus on one thing, as opposed to everything. I want her to know about her black history and her Serbian culture as well, but that’s up to me, the parent, not the school.”

However, many black parents, teachers and community activists do see value in implementing black-focused schools. For years, they have been asking the Toronto school board to give the idea a chance, and now the board is seriously considering it.

“Nothing is really set in stone right now, but the general feeling I’ve gotten from speaking to some trustees is that this is an issue that needs to be dealt with,” said Shaun Chen, trustee for Scarborough-Rouge River.

The issue is whether black-focused schools can help the many black students across the city who are struggling in the current school system, failing and dropping out at alarming rates.

“The establishment of black-focused schools would make a very positive difference within the black community,” said Dudley Laws, executive directorof the Black Action Defence Committee. “Given the proper direction, they will produce a lot of brilliant students.”

The basic idea is to teach students a curriculum in an environment tailored to the needs of black students in particular, though it would be open to all students. This means an Africentred curriculum taught by more black teachers, with black mentors and counsellors available to the students, along with more parent and community involvement.

“Every race of people needs to be sensitized to their cultural past—their history as a people,”
says Laws. “I think that adds much value to their motivation and how they see life. Any person that
does not have a sense of their history is not as progressive as other people that have been taught their history, or read the historical process through which they came through.”

The failure of the board to engage all the multicultural students of Toronto with a curriculum that includes their historical past, was one of the reasons why First Nations Public School was founded in the 1970s.

“The kids were not feeling a part [of the mainstream schools], lacking self-esteem and pride in who they are,” said Wayne Kodje, Principal of the school.

This resulted in very high dropout rates for Aboriginal students, with many not even completing middle school.

“Since the school started, the dropout rate has decreased quite a bit, to almost no students dropping out,” said Kodje. “In terms of saving and reintroducing students, it’s been quite successful.”

“The parents want culture alive in their kids,” he added. “They’re happy to have a different option.”

And this option, of an alternative school for historically disadvantaged groups, is a right for black students, according to section 14 of the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“The purpose of these schools is to alleviatediscrimination, correct historical disadvantage and get rid of any systemic barriers,” says Afroze Edwards, an official with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. “The commission’s goal is to provide equal access, equal treatment and equal opportunity.”

“For the TDSB, if they’re responding to a need, then they’ve obviously done their homework.”

According to Chen, senior board members are currently working on a staff report on black-focused schools. They will present their findings and recommendations to the trustees on Jan. 29. If recommended and approved, black-focused schools could be a reality by fall.

However, Chen thinks black-focused schools are only a temporary fix for a big problem.

“To me, this really is a band-aid solution because we can’t get into the habit of just pushing students into separate schools,” he said.

“In my ward, there’s an area that is predominantly Tamil youth, and another area that is about 90 per cent Asian. It would benefit them to have their cultures reflected as well,” Chen said.

“We have to provide a more inclusive curriculum, hire more teachers that are a reflection of the student body.”

Beda agrees with Chen, and wants his daughter to learn a curriculum that serves all the students.

“In the melting-pot society we live in, I expect her to learn about all cultures in school,” Beda says.

However, Laws insists that the solution does not have to be one or the other—black-focused schools, or enriching the current curriculum. He says both options could work in tandem.

“If black-focused schools are established, the TDSB should then use the same kind of curriculum in their other schools so that all black students will be able to cope with the kind of historical factors that present themselves, and people that are not of African descent can also benefit from the program,” Laws says.

Even with the institution of Aboriginal alternative schools in Toronto, the regular board curriculum still involves some Aboriginal education.

Aboriginal Voices in the Curriculum: A Guide to Teaching Aboriginal Studies is available in all classrooms to all teachers. In addition, the board offers Native language instruction as an alternative to French to all high school students. Not all high schools offer the Ojibwe language course, but willing students can be bused to the schools that do offer it.

Although Chen maintains that the school system needs a lot of work as a whole, he also sees the situation of many black students dropping out of school as very urgent.

“The statistics do show there are particularly black males falling behind, and this might be a temporary solution to address those particular students—a pilot program to gather evidence, put some students there to see if there’s value in such an initiative. And my prediction is yes, there is. Then we could bring it board-wide,” Chen said.

By the end of the month, we will know if black-focused school advocates will finally get the school they have been wishing for.

And Beda, along with all parents across Toronto, will still have the option of keeping their kids in regular schools.

And maybe, if the board takes it a step further, those regular schools will one day become super-focused schools, geared toward all their students.

Activist Dudley Laws

Activist Dudley Laws is an advocate
for black-focused schools.

Parent Savan Beda

Parent Savan Beda,
is against black-focused schools.