By Dr. GEORGE J. SEFA DEI
An African proverbial saying from the Akan of Ghana and the Yoruba of Nigeria, states that if one does not know what to say at least they can say what they know. Another adds that we should always remember the okra plant, whose fruit will never outgrow its planter in height. These cautions remind us of the importance of humility in our claims to know and, as well, of the significance of communal sharing of knowledge. Those who claim that they know best what African-centred education is about may perhaps show some degree of humility and patience.
Any school is as a good as we collectively work to make it. The power of an intellectual idea is how well it is executed to achieve the intended results in the long run. Change is never instant. There are growing pains, and without the support of community and a shift in the institutionalized mindset which maintains the status quo, no change can be expected. There are also no guarantees that the change one hopes for will be what is eventually achieved. This is to say that while we can predict change, we cannot say what it will look like. With collective dedication and effort, however, we can all at least hold our heads high that we tried despite all obstacles and resistances.
The recent turmoil in Toronto’s Africentric Alternative School is an important educational lesson. It was to be expected. We are a diverse community. We do have differences of opinion. The beauty of such difference lies in the ways in which we bring our collective ideas together to shape and design our own futures.
One hopes the school will emerge even stronger from the challenges it is encountering given the power of the people to address issues that confront them.
Some of us, although proud of the achievements of the Africentric School so far (e.g., performance of students in EQAO test scores, rising enrolments etc), have been quiet in our celebrations. We are not yet there. These successes, for many of us in the community, were to be expected. We knew and were confident that under the right educational conditions wherein our students felt a sense of belonging and identification with the school, staff, context, climate, curriculum and the relevant and appropriate pedagogical and instructional practices, students’ test scores would rise and, of course, parents would seek enrollment for their children and the waiting list for admission would skyrocket. We were confident that the school’s success would be a magnet.
While these test scores are significant (our society lives and breathes hard statistical evidence), we caution the success of the school is to be measured more broadly.
Success must be seen in how well a strong foundation is built which can continue to educate our children in the core African-centred principles that ensure the development of more holistic learners and worldviews. These principles guide the orientation and content of the curriculum as well as its delivery (pedagogy and instruction).
Africa is a central reference point in these teachings but Africa is more than a physical space. It is theorized beyond its boundaries and fixity to include knowledge, cultures, histories and identities. In other words, we want students to learn with a curriculum content that is oriented towards these ideas and principles enshrined in African cultural values and social experience (for example, learners steeped in the ideas of building communities and community of learners through the practice of schooling as community).
Classroom teachings and curriculum content must cultivate a sense of social responsibility on the part of the learner to recognize the obligation to self, peers, community and nation. Curriculum should provide a broad understanding of history and the lessons of such histories as the contributions, achievements and struggles of a people which have been part of the totality of their lived experiences. The central place of culture and pedagogy in education is recognized in terms of grounding the learner in the rich intellectual traditions of a people expressed and conveyed in science, mathematics, technology, arts, literature.
The youth will appreciate and work with a sort of spiritual ontology that stresses and values the wholeness and interrelationships of self and communities; and a connection of the body, mind and soul in the education of the learner. In such a context schooling and education move beyond the material and physical acquisition of knowledge and skills, to engage the mental and spiritual aspects of self and community – appreciating that learning/schooling and education have deep emotional, spiritual and psychological dimensions.
There is a link between personal and collective identities and schooling and knowledge. In other words, who we are, our complex histories and identities (including racial, ethnic, class, gender, sexual, [dis]ability identities) implicate and inform schooling and the learning process to produce educational outcomes. Above all else is the idea of individual and collective agency of learners, ensuring they can work to change their current circumstances through voice and political action.
In effect, what African-centred schooling calls for is education to place learners (their histories, experiences, cultures and knowledges) at the centre of their education. Schooling must highlight the centrality of culture to knowledge production (pedagogy) and emphasize the importance of reaffirming and reinforcing the myriad identities of youth. We need schools, educators and learners to work concretely with principles of community, solidarity, social responsibility, mutual interdependence, collective histories and spiritual learning. Classroom teachings need to emphasize the self as well as collective racial, ethnic, cultural, gender and sexuality-based pride of learners.
It is toward these larger goals that we must turn our attention in our assessments of the school.
Our society celebrates instant success and when problems emerge we sensationalize the problem and quickly look for someone to blame. The issues at the school, reported with notable vigour by mainstream media in recent weeks, speak to imperfections and challenges at the school. Challenges and imperfections are by no means, however, phenomena unique to Africentric education. The media would do well to look at the other alternative schools which opened their doors at the same time in Toronto and have attracted little or no attention in the media despite the persistence of ongoing struggles between parents, staff and administration. Anyone who has spent time in an alternative school community in Toronto of any kind knows that these sorts of struggles are far from rare, and indeed are often the lifeblood of change and dialogue. As with all schools, more needs to be done to support the Africentric School.
First, there is a need for strong school leadership supported by the school board and the community at large. The interests of the wider community can never be sacrificed for the parochial interests of a few. The failure of the school is indeed not an option. The stakes are high for the educational future of our children and for the promulgation of creative community-driven ideas for educational change.
As a community, people of African descent in Canada have long been criticized for showing lack of interest in our children’s education. Ideas that we put forward to deal with the challenges of our children’s education cannot be taken lightly when conventional/mainstream educational policies have not worked for us.
Second, institutional support must be in place to support and sustain the efforts and hard work of the school administration, faculty and students. The community is a tax paying community. As a wider community we must all see it as a collective responsibility to create a conducive environment for educational excellence for all children. There is a demonstrated educational disadvantage for our children and therefore the school cannot be under-resourced. From classroom curricular resources to a social worker (a resource available at all types of schools across the Toronto District School Board), the Africentric Alternative School needs greater resources and it needs them right now. At the very least the board should be looking at its funding formula to see if the school is negatively impacted and to rectify any learning/funding deficit to whatever degree possible.
Third, the school board must acknowledge it is in the collective interests of educational excellence for students to work with the power and centrality of local community (parents) voices. The lag in communication created a frustration on which the media was happy to report. This could likely have been avoided if a dialogue based on mutual respect was better cultivated between the board and parents.
Fourth, it is important for all to understand what the African-centred principles of community, social responsibility, history, the linking of culture and social identity to schooling and knowledge production, leadership transparency and community accountability mean for running an Africentric school. The principles guide the orientation of the school, its curriculum content, pedagogy and the pursuit of classroom teaching and instruction. In effect, these principles shape the climate, environment and social organizational life of the school as a foundational base for educational delivery for success.
This is a tall but surely necessary order, a complex web of tasks with which the school’s staff, faculty administration, students and parents are charged. So far the results are good, but we cannot yet rest along the path of this long journey, any more than we can we get too excited about speed bumps along the way.