Born and raised in the Jane & Finch community, teenagers Whitney Smith and Christopher Jameer are familiar with the misrepresentation and negative stereotypes attached to their neighbourhood.
“I see and read about it in the mainstream media all the time,” said Smith, who graduates from Downsview Secondary School and is set to enter Ryerson University in September to study Business Management.
Smith was among close to 200 high school graduates from her school, neighbouring Westview Centennial Secondary and C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute who participated in last week’s inaugural Walk of Excellence to celebrate student success.
“When mention is made of Jane & Finch, the first thing that comes to some people’s mind is crime and negativity,” said Smith. “This celebration today should put an end to that kind of thinking. When you look around here, you see excellence living in this community and I am proud to be part of that group being celebrated.”
Jameer, who will enter the University of Guelph-Humber media studies program next fall, agreed.
“For me, completing high school is the end of a journey and I am honoured to say I made it in the community that is my home,” said the 17-year-old.
Businesswoman and raconteur, Itah Sadu, conceived the idea for the one kilometre walk that started at C.W. Jefferys and concluded at York University with a celebration that included the presentation of medals, dancing, drumming and singing.
“We are doing this to publicly show student achievement and everyday excellence in this community,” said Sadu. “These schools were chosen because of the ongoing one-story of negativity that is always attached to Jane & Finch. The objective today was not to respond to the negatives but to show that these students and their community are steeped in knowledge.
“It did not matter whether or not the students were going to proceed to institutions of higher learning. The important thing is that they have crossed a marker and milestone in life by graduating from high school and we wanted to acknowledge that. In the conversation of urban schooling and that pedagogy, we also wanted to see if this walk of passage or excellence could be considered an urban ritual and a rite of passage.”
The Toronto District School Board, Promoting Economic Action & Community Health (PEACH), the Festival Management Committee, Beyond Limits, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 4400, the Black Creek Community Health Centre, Toronto Police, the Patty Palace, Educational Attainment West and the York Centre for Education & Community (YCEC) supported the student celebration.
“This is symbolic in that it moves the students between the community and the university,” said Dr. Carl James, who is the YCEC chair. “It shows them that university is a possibility and their community cares about their success.”
For C.W. Jefferys principal, Monday Gala, the celebration was special.
A pall of gloom hung over the school in the spring of 2007 when Grade Nine student, Jordan Manners, was fatally shot on the premises. The school received national media attention for that incident and subsequent sexual abuse allegations.
“Every school is going to have its problems once in a while,” said Gala, who has been at C.W. Jefferys for the last 11 years. “We got up, dusted ourselves off and did the things that led to the kind of success that you see here today. This year, I was blown away by the 90 per cent credit accumulation of our Grade Nine students. I have seen the results for many schools in the board, but I have never seen anything like that. It’s in the Jane & Finch community that we are getting these outstanding results.”
Westview Centennial principal, Allan Easton, said student achievement should never be downplayed.
“It’s vital we celebrate the hard work they put in and also open the door for the community to see that excellent things are happening in our schools,” he said.
Maria Palermo, the principal at Downsview, said her students were excited once they realized the celebration was about them.
“They were not sure what the walk was about in the beginning, but once they grasped it was about them and their accomplishments, there was an overwhelming buy-in,” said Palermo. “It’s important that we stop, celebrate and acknowledge the effort they have put in to get to this really big milestone and for the community to see the incredible strength of our young people.”
City of Toronto poet laureate, Dr. George Elliott Clarke, wrote a special poem – We’re in the Know – to mark the occasion.
“This has been a special day for me,” said Downsview student, Channon McLeish, who aspires to be a gym teacher. “This is on par with our graduation.”
For her schoolmate, Travis Jackson, the celebration demonstrated community care.
“It’s so good to know that my work in high school has not gone without notice and that there are people who are out there to support us,” said the 18-year-old aspiring nurse.