By a vote of 14-6, Toronto District School Board (TDSB) trustees have cleared the way for elementary students attending Canada’s first Africentric Alternative School and other interested students to be taught in a similar learning environment at the high school level.
The Africentric secondary school will be launched in either September 2012 or 2013.
“This was a huge hurdle for us to get over,” said TDSB director of education, Dr. Chris Spence, shortly after the vote, which was greeted by rousing applause from the large audience in the public gallery. “If you rewind the year, one of the concerns was that we needed to approve the concept. Now that has been done, we have the opportunity to get out and work out the details. I am confident we are getting real close to the end zone.
“Obviously we are pleased by this vote, which is a great opportunity to serve our students. That is what this has always been about, which is how do we think outside the box and support our students the best way we can. Given the compelling data that we have with our African heritage students, we saw this as a great opportunity to continue a pathway from elementary to high school.”
A plan to start the new high school at Oakwood Collegiate Institute was scuttled earlier this year following an outcry from community residents and students, and Spence later apologized to trustees for having proposed a school site before they had a chance to discuss it in private.
He made it absolutely clear the mistake will not be repeated and that the community will be fully consulted before a site is selected for the new school.
“This was brought to us by the community and we want to make sure that their voices are heard,” said Spence. “There were some lessons learned in terms of a site selection which was done prematurely…We will take our time, work with the community and find the best possible place so it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Scarborough Centre trustee David Smith supported the concept, saying two of his kids are products of an Africentric school education in the United States; Scarborough Southwest trustee Elizabeth Moyer said she changed her mind because she feels there should be a continuation for the kids already enrolled in the Africentric elementary school and Davenport trustee Maria Rodrigues fully embraced the idea.
“We have around 40 of these alternative schools and none of them has gone through this lengthy process like the Africentric school, “she said. “It’s our obligation and our duty to be equitable and to provide this program for the community…I am going to be blatant and say I think that the issue here is one of discrimination.”
Trustee Shaun Chen warned his colleagues that they have an obligation to provide students with an opportunity to flourish.
“The Africentric elementary school is an outstanding model for us to learn from,” said the Scarborough-Rouge River trustee. “We heard that this was segregation when it was being discussed. Well, three years later, the sky has not fallen and the sun is still shining…The disengagement that the students in the Black community are facing in our regular schools does not stop in Grade Eight.”
Chen’s 2010 Master’s thesis was titled Segregation versus Self Determination: A Black and White Debate on Canada’s first Africentric School.
Toronto Centre-Rosedale trustee Sheila Ward also supported the Africentric elementary-to-high-school pathway.
“I voted in favour of the school because I think we needed to listen to those voices that said they needed help,” said the former school board chair. “Those voices were very compelling…If, however, 50 years from now, we still have Africentric schools, we would have failed abysmally.”
In voting against the school, trustee Chris Tonks – the son of former federal Member of Parliament Alan Tonks – said he was concerned that the board could face more demands for schools based on ethnicity.
He also added that the idea of an Africentric school is contrary to the cultural experience he was brought up in of bridging communities and learning together.
The Africentric Alternative Elementary School’s enrolment almost doubled from 85 at its launch in September, 2009 to 160 for the start of the 2010-11 school year. The school is bursting at the seams with a student population of 185 – and a waiting list.
Principal Thando Hyman-Aman said the school fields regular calls inquiring about student enrolment.
“There is a lot of interest and parents are always calling trying to find out how they could get their kids in our school,” she said.
Starting with just six teachers, including the principal, the school staff has expanded to 16 teachers, including Hyman and a vice-principal, teaching kids from kindergarten to Grade Seven.
Last year, 81 per cent of the Africentric School students achieved at or above the provincial standard in Education Quality and Accountability Office Math Assessment, compared to 71 per cent for the TDSB and for students across the province. The Africentric School also scored higher than the TDSB and the province’s average in writing and reading.
“When this school was set up, the goal was to create an environment in which our young people could feel secure, valued and know the whole learning process is about them,” said Ryerson University associate professor, Dr. Grace-Edward Galabuzzi. “The Africentric School has demonstrated that it’s a culturally-appropriate model of learning.
“Having seen that, there is absolutely no reason why a pathway should not be extended to the high school. It’s really in high school where the negatives and deficits that kids encounter earlier on in life are manifest. That’s where we see the high drop-out rate, the inability to pick up the credits that they need to graduate on time and their acting out.
“The board had one decision to make and (it has) made the right one.”