Uproar over new school: Backlash for Africentric plan approval

Scarborough-Rouge River trustee Shaun Chen
Scarborough-Rouge River trustee Shaun Chen stands by his vote in favour of an Africentric School.

Scott Harrison knew he was paddling against the tide when he voted against an Africentric alternative school, amidst the sea of ‘yes’-vote Scarborough trustees.

However, the Scarborough Centre trustee’s decision has kept him safe from the backlash of the board approving the school, while the others are left vigorously defending their decision.

After a contentious debate, the board voted 11-9 to approve, in principle, the establishment of an Africentric alternative school for the fall of 2009.

“There’s a lot of unjustified attention on the issue because of misconception on what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Scarborough-Rouge River trustee Shaun Chen.

“It’s too bad because I look at the people that voted ‘yes’ and they are some of the most progressive, equity-minded trustees on the board, while a lot of the information that has been published out there has led the public to believe that we promote segregation, or are racist.”

Chen, along with Scarborough East trustee Nadia Bello and Scarborough Southwest trustee Gary Crawford, were all in favour of the Africentric school, in principle.

Security was amped-up at board headquarters on Jan. 29 for the controversial vote and even included plainclothes police officers.

Stakeholders on both sides of the issue and a record-breaking 90-plus media representatives spilled out of the boardroom into special seating on another floor.

An Africentric school was among the four staff report recommendations passed to address the bleak black student graduation rates and increase black student engagement as a whole.

“We respond to student needs in many ways,” Chen said. “We have ESL students that get separated from the regular classrooms, First Nations schools, special education for gifted students or students with mental disabilities.

“We already address diverse student needs in different ways, and it’s not understood as segregation, it’s understood as a modified curriculum providing for marginalized youth.”

Despite having gone through a long transparent process of public meetings, listening to delegates from both sides, and finally voting in favour of the school, Premier Dalton McGuinty has appealed to Torontonians through the media to urge their trustees to reconsider.”

As a result, Chen said some of the trustees that voted for the school have come under attack, with a barrage of people phoning or emailing complaints and even threats.”

Some trustees are trying to correct the media discourse by responding to opposing constituents through email and writing editorials in newspapers.

Though the ‘yes’ vote trustees still stand by their decision and a program area review team is being assembled to hash out the details of the school, it is still not set in stone.

Trustees Josh Matlow and Stephnie Payne are trying to re-open the issue, a move that requires 12 trustee votes. They won’t have a problem getting Harrison to join them, who cites lack of funding among his top reservations.

“Other schools will suffer if we have to find money for this,” Harrison said. “The [provincial] government is very clear that they will not fund this.”

However, Chen said the need to secure extra funding to open the school is another misconception.

“The province funds the school board largely on enrolment, so with every student, we get a certain chunk of money,” he said. “In fact, I will offer that we might even get more money from the province because there will be some students that are not in school that will come back to the system.”

In terms of coming up with the rest of the dozen trustees to re-open the issue, Chen says he is sure the majority of the trustees just want to move on.