Naomi Sterling’s singing voice brought the audience to its feet. Everybody clapped and swayed together to the music. The message in her song was simple:
“You can be Chinese, white, black, whatever,” Naomi said. “You can have a dream.”
On Tuesday, students from Toronto’s new Africentric Alternative School travelled to Topcliff Public School in North York. Naomi and her Grade 6 class were among them. The day transcended race, as students from various backgrounds performed for each other to foster a sense of community between the schools and to celebrate Black History Month.
They danced and shared historical skits laced with quotations from black leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. The message evident in the celebration was that all youth have a chance to achieve.
Given Topcliff’s diverse student population, Michael Brophy, the school’s principal said that teaming the two schools for a joint presentation came naturally.
“We try to recognize many communities … It’s an opportunity to learn more and to enjoy and share within the school,” he said.
This February marks the first Black History Month for the Africentric school. However, recognizing black history isn’t reserved strictly for February. Since the alternative school opened its doors last September, teachers have consistently shaped workshops within the curriculum to connect students with their African heritage.
Veronica Sullivan is the librarian at the Africentric school. She also volunteers for the school’s African Heritage Program, an after-school cultural group that tries to preserve African traditions and history. Speaking with a Barbadian accent, she explained that her previous work within Toronto’s black community prompted her decision to join the Africentric school.
“It’s a passion for me,” she said. “I bring in the history and I do it through the curriculum, including science and math … making sure that the kids are aware of the contributions of African people.”
The Africentric school made headlines in January 2008, when Toronto district school board trustees narrowly approved the creation of the school by a vote of 11-9. Trustee Gerri Gershon is convinced Toronto students should remain integrated in order to succeed academically and socially.
“I don’t believe that we should be dividing kids according to anything that they’re born with, like their sex or skin colour,” Gershon said. “I think it’s important that our kids learn together, grow together and graduate together.”
But others, such as Topcliff’s principal, Michael Brophy, think the school board had a valid reason for experimenting with an alternative school. He said that many black students weren’t thriving within the current educational system.
“There’s nothing to lose by trying something different,” Brophy said. “If you keep doing things the same way, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”