The first sign that it wasn’t going to be just an ordinary meeting between representatives of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and students, parents and community members at Oakwood Collegiate Institute was the six uniformed police officers gathered near the entrance of the crowded school auditorium. As the meeting/consultation began the gathering was informed that police were on hand because the TDSB had received a “couple of disturbing e-mails” which led officials to decide that police security was warranted.
Imagine that kind of security at a meeting for any of the other 22 alternative high schools already established by the TDSB. But this was the first public meeting to discuss the location of an Africentric alternative high school.
The meeting was to have been held in the cafeteria but the size of the turnout led to a change to the 400-seat auditorium, and when the lower level filled to capacity the upper tier was opened.
Among the TDSB representatives on the stage were Director of Education, Dr. Chris Spence, Superintendent of Inclusive Schools, Jim Spyropoulos and Ward 9 Trustee Maria Rodrigues. They all expressed a desire to listen to the concerns of those present and a desire to provide a clear channel of information, something that was urgently needed since it was obvious that a lack of information and previous poor public communication on the part of the TDSB was driving the tremendous unrest and heated emotions that filled the auditorium. That, and media reports framed to set fire once again to the plan.
Given that it played out in an auditorium, the meeting could well be described as dramatic. Although there was an expressed desire for dialogue, it was not clear that the crowd was really hearing what the TDSB representatives were saying in response to their questions and concerns about how the program would run and how it would affect the students already at Oakwood C.I. And not least because of the hot-button spectre of segregation, which is being used to try to kill this alternative school.
An initial list of 17 schools under consideration for housing the Africentric high school came down to two choices, with Oakwood being one of them and the other Winston Churchill C.I.
Oakwood met many of the TDSB requirements for location relative to the elementary level Africentric Alternative School for students transferring to high school; for programs offered at Oakwood C.I. that would benefit students in choosing courses from both high schools and for the success Oakwood has experienced with its multicultural student population.
But students at the meeting, very much in territorial mode, shouted that they did not want their school community to be changed. Most pathetic was to hear some Black students speaking out against having this alternative.
However, not everyone was against it. There were some equally passionate statements in favour of the school. Malvern Collegiate grade 12 student Kativa Turner, 17, gave a highly emotional statement in support of the Africentric high school. She said she would repeat Grade 12 at the new alternative school just to have the Africentric curriculum.
“I’ve been waiting my whole life” for the program, she said.
This young woman’s distress at hearing people reject the school filled the entire auditorium as a few members of the audience rushed to her side to try to calm her. Her pain was palpable as she said, “I’m enraged at you guys for being against it. You have some nerve. It’s not White people dropping out, it’s Blacks and it’s not our fault.”
The meeting, which lasted nearly four hours, continued at a fever pitch, so much so that the temperature from human emotions made the large room uncomfortably warm.
The TDSB’s ‘school within a school’ concept was not going over well. But, Spyropoulos kept his message clear. He reminded the crowd of the 40 per cent failure rate of Black students and that Black students are being pushed out of school. No one seemed to want him to expand on what that meant.
Of course, the elephant in the room, the reason that such a school is needed in the first place, is the much bigger problem of anti-Black sentiment that so many Black students are not able to repulse. This is what is ‘forcing’ them out of school. That so many Black students do withstand such abuse is a testament to their fortitude.
But the ethos of White privilege, so pervasive in its presence at the meeting – the reason these alternative schools are even in the works – carried the day. The decision regarding the Africentric alternative high school has now been delayed until further consultations can take place.
A note on coming full circle…
Looking back at the fiery advocacy led by Black community hero Dudley Laws of the Black Action Defence Committee as the group confronted Toronto police, it was truly a sight to witness the multi-car police advance that led the cortege on the afternoon of Mr. Laws’ funeral.