The odds were heavily stacked against Ronald Blake. Born into a dysfunctional family who could not support him, the young Jamaican boy spent six of his first 10 years in foster care with providers who robbed him the opportunity of a formal education so that he could tend to their land and animals on a full-time basis.
By the time Blake was re-united with his mother, he was illiterate and unable to cope in society. With her help, he gradually learned to read and write.
“That was the basis of my understanding the need for an education and the plight the under-performer faces if they are not given a chance,” said the Higher Marks Educational Institute (HMEI) founder who was honoured last Sunday by Bethel Restoration Ministries for service to the community. “I made up my mind back then that if ever I had the opportunity in life, I would become an educator and train children who needed extra help.”
Blake stuck to his promise by establishing HMEI – Canada’s first Black accredited school – in 1979 as an alternative private institution to provide specialized tutoring to struggling students. Last month, the 7,000th student entered the remedial and intervention program.
The road to Blake’s success was filled with numerous pot holes and sharp curves. After re-uniting with his mother, he took correspondence courses and passed the General Certification Education (GCE) exams at age 24 after seven attempts. With an aptitude for drawing, his attempts to enroll in night school to study drafting were thwarted because he did not have the prerequisite basic math skills needed for the course.
His GCE qualifications, however, allowed him to secure jobs in Jamaica’s public sector.
“I was able to build a home for my mom and get married, but deep down I did not feel that what I was doing was sufficient to be paid well,” he said. “I desperately wanted a degree and to be an educator.”
Blake left Jamaica in 1965 to enroll in Concordia University’s Faculty of Engineering. Without a school record showing he graduated from a Jamaican educational institution, he was unable to satisfy the university’s admission requirements.
“Frustrated, I approached the Dean and told him that I passed the GCE exams on my own,” Blake said. “He was stunned and he told me if I could do that, the university would gladly accept me.”
Blake’s tenure at Concordia lasted half a semester before he ran out of money and was forced to abandon the program.
Dejected, he came to Toronto and did correspondence courses for five years before enrolling in the University of Guelph in 1972 at age 36 to study engineering.
“I was doing well in the program until I passed by a Philosophy class one day and was intrigued by the subject,” he said. “I approached the guidance counsellor and was successful in switching to Sociology and Political Science. I instantly realized that was the area I wanted to learn about.”
Blake secured his degree in just over two years and was appointed director of a non-profit organization in Toronto. His thirst for higher knowledge led him back to Guelph where he attained a Masters in Extension Education & Human Resources Development.
While pursuing post-graduate studies and without an income to support his wife and four children, Blake conceived the idea to sell patties.
“While eating wieners for breakfast one morning, it dawned on me that there was not much between the flour and meat I was consuming and Jamaican patties,” he said. “I went to every patty maker in the city with the guarantee that I would sell it for them.”
Under his “Ready Made” brand, Blake signed contracts for his patties to be sold in Toronto schools, Mount Sinai Hospital and CIBC’s downtown cafeterias. The commercial patty business was booming for nearly two years until he faced opposition from some major food giants.
“It was just simple me against the big boys and there was no way I could win,” he said. “I guess I was doing too well for their liking and they did not want me in business anymore.”
Blake sold encyclopedias briefly before launching HMEI 33 years ago.
“I had to walk around with my certificates and degrees to prove to parents that I was qualified to teach,” he said. “For $20, they would then allow me to work with their underachieving children. I started out in Ontario Housing because kids in that environment needed a lot of help…The big break came when a Jewish mother brought her son, who was trying to get into medical school, for me to work with because he had failed some exams. I promised her that if I taught him, he would not fail.
“When the exam results came out, he was not among those successful and the lady thanked me for trying with her son. Three days later, she came back to say the university made a mistake and he in fact did pass the exams. She was so elated she brought Global TV to interview me.”
Blake retired last September, but he still tutors a few students privately at his residence; students who are in desperate need of specialized help. His eldest daughter, Harvia Gray, runs the daily operations of the school. The program includes material pertaining to inspirational African-Canadian role models and Afrocentric subjects which enable students to stay connected with what they are learning.
Classes are limited to a maximum of 11 students who dress in navy blue pants or skirts, white shirts, navy blue ties and black shoes.
Blake, who just over four decades ago co-founded the Black Heritage Association which changed its name to the African Canadian Heritage Association in 1992, said his aim was to enroll 7,000 students.
“That was my original goal because I figured if I could recover 7,000 Black students, then they would perhaps marry one another and we could produce a powerful middle-class,” said Blake who has a doctorate in Religious Studies from Friends International Christian University and is the founder of Dialogue of Faith Church, which was established in 2005.
Banking executive, Charlene Currie, acknowledged that HMEI is largely responsible for her success.
Unable to read and write at age seven even though she was enrolled in public school, Currie’s parents registered their youngest daughter in HMEI. She left in Grade Nine, completed high school with honours and spent a year at Humber College studying Public Relations before transferring on an entrance scholarship to York University to study Sociology.
After graduating, TD Canada Trust – with whom she worked part-time through an agency – offered her full-time employment. She returned to Humber part-time five years ago to pursue study Project Management and was assigned to TD’s headquarters after graduating with a certificate a year later. She was recognized for her leadership with the Vision in Action Award which is the organization’s highest honour recognizing the “best of the best” and in May 2010 was promoted to Operations Manager.
With private lessons from Blake to brush up on Math and a few other subjects, Currie was admitted to the prestigious University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business where she will graduate with an MBA this year.
By RON FANFAIR