Africentric high school has low turnout

TDSB blames late publicity for six-student class

After years of academic research, intense media scrutiny and rowdy debates, Toronto’s first Africentric high school class has launched in Scarborough — with six students.

Officials are blaming delays in promoting the program, which follows the elementary-level Africentric school that launched in 2009 and counts over 200 pupils and a waiting list.

The Toronto District School Board planned to kick off the high school program in 2013, but decided last spring to run a pilot program. Grade 8 students were notified in June, months after most had picked their high schools.

The Africentric programs offer students of any race a curriculum that highlights achievements of African-Canadians. The board designed the schools after community pressure to address both an alarming 40 per cent dropout rate among black high schoolers and a Eurocentric curriculum.

Starting this month, six high school students are participating in the Leonard Braithwaite program, named after Ontario’s first black member of the provincial parliament, who died in March. They’ll be taught the same Grade 9 topics as other Toronto youth, but their courses will use examples of black inventors, artists and political figures.

The program is hosted by Winston Churchill Collegiate in Scarborough, near Kennedy Road and Lawrence Avenue East, chosen after community opposition at the board’s original choice of Oakwood Collegiate, just west of the city’s centre. Five of the program’s students were already planning to go to the Scarborough school, while one transferred from the Catholic school board.

The school falls under Trustee David Smith, who represents Scarborough Centre (Ward 19). Smith did not reply to interview requests but has told other media he supports the program and believes it will gain popularity.

Mari Rutka, trustee for Willowdale (Ward 12), spoke against the program when it was proposed. She said she still has reservations about the program but respects her colleagues’ authority.

“I actually believe, and still believe, that we are better educated if we’re taught together,” Rutka said. “I think it’s better to learn about different cultures, and I hope that gets done in all schools.”

The Africentric high school was subject of a recent Toronto Sun editorial that noted $75,000 has already been spent on the program. Board documents issued this week show that a third of the expenses went to drafting a curriculum, while most of the rest went to retrofitting and moving classrooms.

With 60 students originally expected, only one of the three teachers assigned to the program has been kept on the file. TDSB director Chris Spence admits the program was promoted late, but is optimistic about its future.

“Our focus this fall will be to further promote this opportunity to students and parents — both in Toronto and beyond,” he said in a statement to The Scarborough Observer. “We’re confident that more students will sign up for the second semester.”

The program is part of Spence’s vision of providing students with unique learning environments. The board launched an academies program this fall that offers Grade 4-6 students courses that highlight topics like vocal talent, female leadership and physical learning.

Recently, the TDSB has begun studying a community proposal for a queer-centric high school, though only initial discussions have taken place.