Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Black-Focused School Approved for Toronto: TDSB approves Africentric school for 2009

by Kabir Joshi-Vijayan

On January 29th, school trustees at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) headquarters overflowing with students, parents and teachers, voted 11-9 in favour of opening the city’s first Africentric or Black-focused school. This decision came after over 10 years of meetings, debates, reviews, and a tireless campaign of black parents and community workers demanding that the school board finally take some sort of action to deal with the crisis of a 40% high school drop out rate among black youth. The school is set to open by September 2009 (with details being hammered out in the interim.)

So what exactly is an Africentric school? Any racialized, poor and/or marginalized person who has gone through the public education system knows how isolating and discriminatory it can be. Much of what is taught has no relevance to racialized and working-class youth and their experiences. The hope is that black-focused schools would be an alternative to this.

It would be an environment where students would learn about their own history, culture and experience in every part of the curriculum. Africentric schools are based on the vision that education is a shared community responsibility and so parents and the wider community would be included within the education environment. And contrary to popular belief and corporate media distortions, the schools would be open to students of any background because it is believed that an Africentric program can help any student feeling pushed out of the mainstream system.

Many community groups who understand the devastating affect the school system is having on black youth have hailed the vote, such as the Jane-Finch Concerned Citizens, Jamaican-Canadian Association, African Canadian Heritage Association, Canadian Alliance of Black Educators, the Ontario Parents of Black Children, the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, the Black Action Defence League.

However, the corporate media, including all major newspapers, has pushed strongly against the creation of the schools. Through twisting the message of black community activists, and even openly racist editorials, the media have unfortunately been successful in encouraging the wider Toronto community to oppose the decision. We all have heard the arguments that black focused schools would “return segregation” and further divide Canadians. In fact it is the complete opposite.

Segregation is when ruling groups in society force marginalized people out of public institutions (arguably what is effectively happening right now with “revitalization”, or the privatization of medical services). Instead, Africentric schools represent a demand from within the black community for a little bit of public space to help their youth and mend some of the damage done by the mainstream system. The shameful thing is that investigations and reports have been calling on the TDSB to implement an Africentric program for 15 years. However, the TDSB did nothing. Yet in the same period they opened a number of other alternative schools with varying specialities in order to, according to the TDSB, “offer (disengaged) students and parents something different from mainstream schooling”.

Meanwhile Ontario’s Premier Dalton McGuinty has said that he won’t give one cent to the establishment of such a school because he is “uncomfortable with the concept”.

There are those who say that Africentric schools are not the solution because they don’t really address the problem, which is the system as a whole. Some say that opening a couple of schools may help a small number of students, but it would still leave the majority of youth to struggle in a toxic system.

Yet Africentric schools in no way contradict this point. Those who have fought for them are faced with a crisis right now! They understand very well that our school system is broken and is failing kids from all different ethnic, social, economic and cultural backgrounds. It is not just a question of race, but also a question of class. While 40% of Black youth do not complete high school, 43% of Portuguese students and 25% of all students are dropping out as well. Advocates see Africentric schools as just one step and a small part of the larger discussion about how we eliminate racism and inequity in the system.

The lessons learned through an Africentric program can and will be fed into the mainstream public system. Angela Wilson, one of the leading members who fought for Africentric schools, recently said after the TDSB vote: “we’re happy, but as I said the struggle continues – we have layers and layers of things to do”.