Without much fanfare, the Africentric alternative secondary program opened this month sharing space at Winston Churchill Collegiate in Scarborough. What fanfare there was has come from those who take every opportunity to dump on this long-fought-for initiative, and, it should be noted, to a highly receptive audience, especially on social media.
In addition to the usual invectives, the point of interest has to do with the initial numbers enrolled at the school currently offering a grade nine pilot program. The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) had looked at an initial 60 students for enrolment but has acknowledged that the program was launched earlier than planned – by a year, in fact – and that this early opening meant there was not much time to publicize widely that the school would be up and running for this academic year.
On the first day of school, six students were enrolled, but we need only look at the history of enrolment of the first initiative, the Africentric Alternative School, to realize that low numbers early in this new school’s life is not unusual.
When early registration for the inaugural elementary program at the Africentric Alternative School began in late 2008 and early 2009, many who opposed the school made much of those low enrolment numbers. Yet, year over year the school has ended up with a waiting list.
So this inaugural class of grade nine students numbering six at the beginning of the school year is a start, not an end.
What should we expect of this second leg of this initiative that took some four decades to become a reality? The Africentric elementary school has proved to be a success despite the tensions that have marked its early years as interested parties with divergent visions for the school engaged in the process of configuring the content and tone of the curriculum.
This kind of back and forth is normal within alternative schools given that such education alternatives are often the concept of groups of parents who have a particular type of program in mind when they make submission to the TDSB.
But the school has managed to survive the conflict among the parents and the education professionals and the students are thriving despite the tug of war.
What has not changed, however, is the kind of high emotion outside of the Black community for the most part among those who seem to be curiously invested in not having this school exist.
Regardless of the fact that students at the elementary school are significantly exceeding the average on Ontario elementary school tests, the anti-Africentrists insist that this school is ‘bad’ for these children. We have to question why they express so much concern for Black children who are doing well and wonder if they would prefer failure instead of their proven success.
Do they have even one clue about what happens to Black children in the mainstream? Even the ones who excel and earn academic success are faced with challenges to their racial heritage in myriad ways.
When asked in a 2004 study on racial profiling and zero tolerance what their experience was in the mainstream school system many Black students explained that they felt marginalized and felt labeled as ‘problems”, as “socially dysfunctional” and as ‘threats”. They recounted punishments that were more severe than for students of other heritages. Moreover, some of these students felt they were being pushed out of school.
It bears repeating that these alternative schools are not a complete answer to the crises in education that face almost half the number of the Black students in our public education system. But they are one answer in an effort to give options to those who would easily fall through the cracks into failed lives, and to instead allow them an environment in which to achieve their potential.
The new program, named in memory of history making politician, Leonard Braithwaite, will defy its naysayers, just as the elementary school is defying all those negative expectations.
It was such negative expectations that have driven the need for these alternatives in the first place.