By Dr. GEORGE J. SEFA DEI (Nana Sefa Tweneboah I)
OISE, University of Toronto
Like others, I have read with interest and amazement the recent uproar regarding the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) proposal to open a second Africentric school, this one at the secondary level.
The hysteria and outrage at the process through which the TDSB has pursued its intentions has been conflated with the old debates about the merits of Africentric schooling. This conflation has necessarily also involved a dismissal of the preliminary accomplishments of the existing Africentric elementary school. We must ask ourselves whether the Board would even be considering a second proposal had the current school been anything near a failure or disappointment.
The existing Africentric School has experienced meaningful success despite its growing pains. Why then are we not focusing our energies on identifying and replicating the accomplishments of the Africentric Alternative School? Why, instead, continue to recite tired arguments that Africentric alternative schooling should not exist since it is not the panacea for all that is wrong with the current state of public schooling? These arguments are a well-oiled engine that have been kept humming for years while the needs of students most failed by the existing arrangement have been neglected.
The Toronto Star editorial on April 3 touts redirecting resources to struggling students within the public school system through the recruitment of Black and racial minority teachers as mentors/role models, through a renewed and strengthened curriculum reflecting the province’s diversity, and through active and sustained community involvement in education. These are all valid suggestions, yet they are also suggestions that have been offered for years with little action. The problem of youth disengagement remains a pivotal challenge, and it is clear that the current system is not serving the needs of all of our youth. In fact, it is quite understandable that affected communities would be unsure of the existence of the good faith necessary to meaningfully implement these changes.
The question therefore is whether or not we continue to place our hope in a possibly well-intentioned but failing system, or amass the courage to face the realities and offer alternatives while we continue to plod away at strengthening the system…eventually?
The initial legitimate concerns about segregation brought about by our sensitivity to the history of schooling in Canada must give way to distinctions between historic actions from without to oppress a people (through segregation by force) and the current initiatives, demanded by oppressed groups, to begin to move toward solutions to the enormous challenges that face them.
It cannot be forgotten that the Africentric Alternative idea in Toronto is one that was fought for and won by concerned parents and community members who refused to continue to sit idly by and wait for others to find and implement solutions to a system that failed them in large numbers. It is the responsibility of the public schooling system to respond to the cries of the citizens it serves.
We must acknowledge the limitations of an ‘either/or’ mindset and begin to work within an ‘and/with’ framework. Evidence has shown that in search for solutions to existing problems, multiple approaches can and do work. Those of us who have long advocated and championed the cause of Africentric schooling also wish to see a strong public system. At the same time, we wish to avoid hiding our heads in the sand, and acknowledge the importance of exercising the agency to offer other possible solutions. One can only know how much these projected solutions will work after we have tried – and the evidence is quite compelling at the moment. Furthermore, best practices from the Africentric School may be transferable to other schools within the public school system.
Can the on-going efforts at inclusive schooling not continue as we run alternative pilot projects? Can these two approaches not co-exist and result in the sharing of best/exemplary practices?
We must engage concerns raised by community-involved academics, education experts and parents who have already developed a body of evidence supporting Africentric education and who have advocated strongly for their children’s needs and rights for alternative/counter education. We cannot universalize our learners’ identities and experiences. The universal experience may be envisioned as reasonable, natural and neutral when, in fact, it does not meet students’ needs. If we wish for the project of public education to succeed, we must embrace educational change. We must have policies and practices that target the needs of those youth who are failed by traditional and current arrangements (e.g., Aboriginal, African-Canadian, Francophone, Portuguese, South East Asian communities etc).
To further respond to objections to Africentric alternative schools, it must also be understood that the focus of Africentric philosophy is not race. It is also not just about Africa. Africentric schooling is built on a philosophy of education that integrates teachings of culture, identity and history, which can be used as a cornerstone for youth education to produce excellence (social and academic). These are teachings rooted in a worldview that espouses social responsibility, community belonging, mutual interdependence, respect for self, group and community, authority and citizenship responsibility. This schooling recognizes the importance of affirming the learner’s complex identities (racial, class, gender, sexual, spiritual, ability, etc) histories, cultures and how they may be used as catalysts in a student’s ownership of knowledge.
These affirmations are a starting point from which to effectively teach science, mathematics, literature, the arts, and other subjects to youth. By highlighting the achievements and contributions of their forebears in these various subject areas, students are offered a challenge to succeed, not give in to despair, and to assume places in history and society.
Given these philosophical underpinnings that challenge traditional Eurocentric educational philosophies, the discussion about Africentric schooling must also include determining how we can best assess the success of such schools in Ontario – now and in the future. Improvements on the EQAO test scores of the existing school give us hope, and make the point that Africentric alternative schools are viable options. However, we must measure success beyond test scores to include accounts of students’ self-reflection, the strength of their identities, their relationship to learning and education, their sense of purpose in life, and their commitment to their communities. These elements will exhibit true social success.
There is also a need for action research on pilot projects. Action research is necessary to strengthen teaching and to ensure transferability of best practices to serve the needs of other students. Such research must involve teachers and school staff and be directed and used purposefully toward the future development of the school. Research should examine teaching practice, student assessment, student involvement, strategies for parental/community involvement etc. Action research provides best practices which can then be transferred to other schools, serving the needs of all students.
As we consider Africentric curriculum and pedagogic initiatives, the fact that alternative schools must meet the expectations of the Ontario curriculum is non-negotiable. Yet, we must examine larger questions of how and what is taught in order to achieve excellence for all youth. This may, in fact, imply changes to the Ontario curriculum. We need to empower parents and local communities to support the school staff and administration to ensure accountability and transparency to the local community. The role of parents and Elders and the wider community are integral, and can help ensure that the gains of the Africentric schools are protected. We must also put effort toward developing partnerships between the Africentric schools and other schools, through exchanges between teachers, classroom interactions, sports, quiz, debating society interactions and so on. The goal is not to isolate the students or the school.
I hope that these will become the issues that guide current conversations around the Africentric School. Until the challenge around youth disengagement from school is addressed, there will be a continual need for such schools in years to come. We must ask ourselves: When we refuse to think outside the ordinary, how do we make ourselves complicit in the very processes that produce the problem?
In thinking through how we make educational excellence accessible to all youth we cannot ignore the fact that we are all intimately connected. We must collectively share the deep frustration of our communities who feel that their voices are not being heard, and who are continually dismissed when they offer possible solutions to the challenges their children face in schooling and education.
It should be our collective hope that all stay connected in the pursuit of justice and equality for all. Let us pick up the torch and keep the dream of educational equity for all alive as one people sharing one love. The Africentric School is not, and has never been, about segregation.