Canada’s first “Black only” school under heavy criticism

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The “Africentric Alternative School” in Toronto is Canada’s first “Afrocentric” public school. Catering for students of African or Afro-Caribbean descent, the school’s main aim is to help reduce the high levels of school dropout rates among the city’s black youth. Needless to say, the system has been strongly criticized by a number of educational communities in Toronto. Despite the controversy, the school went ahead and opened its doors last September.

Should black students be separated from other students so as to encourage them to perform better? As incompatible as the idea may seem, in accordance with anti segregation values, the answer is different across the Atlantic. Adhering to an ethnic grouping to find a job, get a bank loan or even get elected is nothing strange.

It therefore came as no surprise when a proposal to establish an “Afrocentric” school was approved by the Toronto District School Board last year. The board is a public body made up of 22 elected officials representing the 22 school districts of the City. After a narrow vote, the decision to create the “Africentric Alternative School” to help “reduce the disproportionately high dropout rate of black students in the city,” according to supporters of the new system, was confirmed in January 2008.

Less Eurocentric

The first students of the school began their school program last September. Most of them clothed in traditional African attires, the 85 boys and girls aged between 6 and 10 years became the center of attraction on September 8. Scrutinized closely by the national media, the students attended a concert, during which the black national anthem was performed, in the schoolyard, before heading for their respective classrooms.

As indicated by the school’s principal, Thandi Hyman Aman, the Africentric Alternative School’s curriculum has the same goals as other public schools in the province of Ontario. But although the goal is the same, teaching materials may differ. “The same reading, the same writing, the same mathematics will be there… What makes this school look different are the culturally relevant resources that we use.” Teachers rely on materials from the black community… “We are less Eurocentric than other schools,” May Moore reveals.

“The Kid’s Book of Black Canadian History” is one of the school’s main reading books, while personalities like the Governor General of Canada, Michaëlle Jean (of Haitian descent), former South African President, Nelson Mandela, as well as Wangari Maathai, 2004 Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner, among others, are likely to be evoked by teachers during the academic year.

Among other subjects, the “Africentric Alternative School” offers African cuisine and djembe (African tamtam) lessons, bringing students closer to the tastes and sounds of their African-Caribbean ancestry.

Inquiries and enrolment applications have not stopped since the opening of the school. From an initial 85, the number of students now stands at 130. This has compelled the establishment to expand by renting rooms at a neighbouring school.

A solution for Black youth?

The school owes its creation, mainly, to the tenacity of a group of parents who believed that the project held a solution to the disproportionately high levels of examination failures and dropout rates among their wards. In Toronto alone, 40% of black students leave high school without a diploma.

According to May Moore of the school’s Department of Communication, the school is one of 42 other alternative schools in Ontario, which were created by virtue of the initiative of parents who sought other models and avenues of success for their children. There are many Alternative or Non-traditional schools that promote the child’s own knowledge as a basis for learning in Canada. Divided into private and public alternative schools, there are 32 of them in the province of Quebec.

Black teachers, Black curricula, Black cuisine and Black children… Opponents of the “Africentric” solution to the educational dilemma in the black community believe that the “Africentric Alternative School” is more than just an alternative school. For them the school encourages segregation. The accusation has been strongly rejected by the school’s management. They have argued that the school remains open to all and sundry, although all those enrolled in the school are either black or mixed race, including teachers.

Don Valley West representative, Gerry Gershon, who strongly opposes the initiative, thinks that “the act of separating children according to their skin color” is tantamount to segregation, although she also admits to the fact that the school is open to everyone. Gerry Gershon thinks it is unfair to Canadian taxpayers.

Regarding the success of the Africentric idea, Gerry Gershon remains skeptical. She does not believe that parents have what it takes to make sound decisions on what formal education should be, while making reference to the school’s curriculum. For her, only public school teachers and principals hold the key to the success of black students. “A different approach must be tried (…) in all schools,” she says.

Gerry Gershon also believes that the cultural heritage of Black-Canadian students must be included in the general school program. Separating “the students is a real step backwards,” Gerry Gershon insists. Nonetheless, the first day of school was marked by emotional scenes in the Africantric Alternative School’s courtyard as some mothers reminisced about the bygone days when they were the only blacks in their schools…

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