When the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) asked Lloyd McKell to lead the process of establishing an Africentric Alternative School, they did so fully aware that he had the credentials to tackle the controversial task that was going to generate extensive debate and discussion.
In addition to his having been with the TDSB since 1976, McKell has an extensive understating of equity and human rights issues and education policies. He also has an exemplary relationship with the city’s diverse, racial, cultural and socio-economic communities.
McKell had been advocating for an Africentric alternative school long before parents Angela Wilson and Donna Harrow approached the board in the summer of 2007, requesting that they consider the establishment of the school to reach students who were not doing well in the mainstream system.
“For me, it was not new when this matter came before the board,” McKell, who retires from the TDSB on February 15, told Share. “I was already an advocate for such a school as a way of addressing the issue of educating students in an environment that would inspire them to learn and to be successful.
“When the board came to me to lead the charge, I already understood what were the components that needed to be brought together in order to make it a concept that met the needs of the community.”
McKell said he was not surprised by the opposition to the school that received a close 11-9 vote from TDSB trustees.
“As in anything that’s new, we didn’t know what shape the school would take,” he said. “Everybody had their own opinion as to what an Africentric School is all about and so trying to navigate the different perspectives of what the school should be was part of the process. There were many skeptics and people, not only in the general population but also in the Black community, who were opposed to the concept of the school. So we had to work with that and part of it was trying to generate positive discussions so that everyone could come to some kind of a shared understanding of what the school was going to be all about.”
McKell said one of the major challenges for the board was ensuring that the right principal was installed.
Thando Hyman-Aman, who got the job, was suspended last October while the board investigated a complaint made against her by a parent. She returned from a leave of absence a month later after being vindicated. McKell said the board made the right decision in hiring her.
“I am more convinced now that she’s the right leader given the fact that she weathered the controversy with dignity, professionalism and with the same dedication she has always demonstrated to students’ success,” he said. “I spoke with her just last week and despite the circumstances of the recent past, she has come back and continues to be dedicated to making sure that the students in her school get the very best environment for learning that there is. The school’s record over the first year demonstrates that many of the students have shown the kind of success they may not necessarily have achieved in another situation.
McKell had a strong message for those opposed to the smooth running of the school.
“This school is more than just a typical educational institution,” he said. “It’s more of a symbol of the strength and assertiveness of the African-Canadian community in Toronto and as such efforts by all members of the community should be directed towards supporting the school in the very best way. While I understand that people have a right to be critical, they should also look at the big picture and the community’s best interest.”
McKell was also at the forefront of the board’s 2005 decision to collect data on race, ethnicity, disability and other factors for all students from junior kindergarten to Grade 12 through a combination of parent surveys.
“This was groundbreaking in that it was a very sensitive issue,” he said. “This along with the creation of the Africentric School and the then Toronto Board of Education study in the mid-1980s that for the first time looked at the issues affecting Black students in the system are the main highlights of my career.”
A graduate of Trinidad & Tobago’s Queen’s Royal College, McKell taught Latin and Spanish for three years at St. George’s School in Barataria before successfully applying to come to Canada as a foreign student in 1967.
He graduated with an Economics degree from the University of Toronto five years later, worked as a program director with the now defunct Harriet Tubman Centre and was the first chair of the Scarborough Black Community Education Committee before joining the city’s school board 35 years ago as a community relations officer.
McKell was promoted to coordinate the community relations program in 1986, a position he held until 1998 when he was appointed central coordinator for community services. He provided system leadership for parent and community involvement at the TDSB and wrote the board’s equity foundation statement that provides the basis for ensuring fairness, equity and inclusion are essential principles of the school system and are integrated into the policies, programs, operations and practices.
He also provided key support to the board’s Africentric Summer Institute in 2004 that was a pilot designed to offer an exciting learning opportunity for Black Grades 1-5 students in the Jane-Finch area.
In September 2005, McKell was appointed the board’s first executive officer for student and community equity. He held the post until last year when he became the senior adviser to TDSB’s director of education, Dr. Chris Spence.
McKell plans to spend six weeks in T & T soon after he retires before returning to Toronto at the end of March.
“I am going to take in carnival and be with my mother who is celebrating her 90th birthday,” he said. “My options are open when I return. However, I will always be close to education and serving children and youth in the city. I am going to look at what there is out there before I make my next move.”