By RON FANFAIR
Today I pledge to be the best possible me. No matter how good I am, I know I can become better…Today I pledge to believe in me.
The first class of the Africentric Alternative School enthusiastically recited this pledge which, along with an affirmation, will be a daily ritual, before settling into an educational environment where the provincial mandated curriculum will feature an integration of the diverse perspectives, experiences and histories of people of African descent.
Toronto District School Board (TDSB) director Dr. Chris Spence joined administrators, parents, community activists, including Donna Harrow and Angela Wilson who co-authored the school’s proposal, and trustee James Pasternak for Tuesday’s historic opening.
The Africentric School is set up in a wing of Sheppard Public School and it will operate as a junior kindergarten to Grade Five option with the capacity to grow to Grade Eight.
“Today, we mark not so much the opening of a new school, but the affirmation of an ideal that our great responsibility as educators is to ensure that the students who enter our system must leave with the knowledge that there are no closed doors and there are no glass ceilings, and that they have the skills and character to set a course and define their own future,” said Pasternak, who was an early supporter of the Africentric school.
“We affirm today that the school board can be an engine of social change and it can lead in innovation, creativity and new approaches to meet the diverse communities that we serve. We once again recognize that every child is different and that we must adhere to the truism that one approach to education will not work for all.
“We open doors today to new ideas embracing change and reaching out to those who are sitting on the sidelines waiting for a chance to blossom and meet their aspirations. The great lesson that we can give is to never kick the ladder down from behind us. Through education, we have at our disposal a great opportunity to demonstrate that understanding diversity can bring us together and that appreciating the past can make for a better future.”
Pasternak told parents who have enrolled their children that the board fully understands its responsibility to meet their expectations and he encouraged the students to chase their dreams and re-affirm their convictions.
“Don’t let people say you can’t and don’t let people say it will never work because, over the last 18 months, that was what people said to me about the Africentric School and here we are,” he said proudly.
TDSB’s executive officer of Student and Community Affairs Lloyd McKell, who has been at the forefront of the struggle to establish Canada’s first Africentric public school, beamed with pride as the students – elegantly dressed in white tops and black bottoms and traditional African design vests – filed into their new school.
“You all look so beautiful,” he told them at the inaugural welcoming assembly. “You are gorgeous and precious and you are gifts to your parents, the community, this city and the world because you will grow up to be leaders. This school will help you reach that goal.”
Principal Thando Hyman-Aman greeted parents and presented her staff before delivering an important message to the students.
“Your parents have enrolled you in a school of excellence,” she said. “They want to make sure that you do the best, so today is the first day of many days of success. You will learn together, grow together and understand what it means to be a community.
“Here in our community of learners, the sky is the limit and you can dream to be anything that you want to be.”
The students were treated to an African drumming demonstration led by Quammie Williams, whose son Ayinde Skerritt-Williams is attending the school, while educator Clem Marshall offered libation of water to the ancestral spirits and multi-talented artist Tiki Mercury-Clarke sang the Canadian and Black National anthems.
“This is a historic moment and an important step for us as a family because we wanted to ensure that our children get a positive education,” said Ginelle Skerritt-Williams, who is the executive director at the Warden Woods Community Centre.
“We don’t mind paying the $300 a month for him to get here from Scarborough because this promises so much more for what he can achieve. We know the teachers and they have a standard of excellence which is in keeping with what we expect and want for him.”
Evette Ferguson, who recently re-entered school as an adult learner, said she will make the sacrifice to allow her nine-year daughter Zauwana Hollingsworth to attend the institution.
“It will be a challenge but I will make it work because I faced racism in the classroom as a 42-year-old just getting back into system,” she said. “I don’t want my daughter to be exposed to any of that and that’s why I placed her where I know she would be among her own people who understand her and will be able to steer her in the right direction.”
Malton resident Thandiwe Chimurenga, whose British-born sons Jhalfami and Shomari Hill are enrolled in the school a year after coming to Canada, says the institution’s launch represents an important milestone for this country’s Black community.
“It marks an era in focusing on cultural education for our children and the upliftment of our nation while contributing to the wider multicultural society,” she said.
Share columnist and community activist Murphy Browne concurred:
“This is something that is necessary and one which I have advocated for the past two decades,” said Browne, whose four-year-old granddaughter, Iiliyah Browne, is enrolled in the school. “We need a school where our children can be at the centre of what they are learning.”
The Africentric School is one of four TDSB alternative schools that opened their doors last Tuesday. The others are Da Vinci, which is sharing location with Lansdowne Public School, the Grove Community School that shares space with Alexander Muir/Gladstone Ave. Public School and Whole Child that’s located at Roden Public School.
McKell said it’s a bit unusual for four alternative institutions to launch at the start of a school year.
“Nevertheless, any group of parents can come together, define a unique learning environment that they want to have for their kids and put forth a proposal to the board,” he said. “Each of those schools has its own unique features within a public school context.”
The TDSB, which approved a recommendation in May 2008 to set up the Africentric School that’s open to all students – has 20 elementary and 22 secondary alternative schools.