In Grades Nine and 10, Joel Osei’s focus was on fitting in with his peers instead of education. The results were reflected in his school reports, with averages of 52 and 55.
Uncomfortable with the poor showing, the Northview Heights Secondary School student made a detour to the road of academic excellence and is graduating from high school with a 90 per cent average.
“I didn’t care much about education and school work,” said Osei, who was among 157 Toronto District School Board elementary and secondary school students recognized last week for holding high educational aspirations and brilliance in academics, the arts, sports and community service. “All I wanted to do was follow my friends while my school work was falling behind.”
It didn’t take someone to remind the teenager that he was heading down the wrong road.
“I made the decision to pull back from my friends, go home after school and do my homework and I started to hand in my assignments on time,” he said. “I could see a difference in my marks, which climbed and I was happy with that. I felt a sense of accomplishment.”
Osei and 31 other students were honoured with academic awards named after university professor, Dr. George Dei, who is an Africentric education advocate. He plans to pursue sports management studies at Humber College and a business administration degree at the University of Guelph-Humber.
In its third year, the Black Student Recognition Awards are presented by the African Heritage Educators’ Network (AHEN).
Invitations were sent out to TDSB schools to nominate students for the awards in the various categories. A total of 90 schools responded to the request.
“Far too often, we are inundated with stories of negativity and failure when it comes to Black youth,” said AHEN co-chair, Stacey-Ann Dunkley, who has been a TDSB teacher for the past five years. “What we are doing today is presenting stories of Black youth who are successful and doing positive things. We are putting them on a big stage to say we see you are doing great and you are more than what some segments of the media project you to be. I had teachers in high school (Nelson A. Boylen Collegiate Institute) who would point out when I did something well or great, but I was never celebrated like this.”
TDSB superintendent, Jackie Spence, said many Black students are achieving at a very high standard in the public school system.
“It’s therefore important that we honour and celebrate them,” said the former Africentric Alternative Elementary School principal, who has a passion for equality.
In the keynote address, Ontario’s Associate Minister of Finance, Mitzie Hunter, praised AHEN for shining a light on the students and encouraging them to explore their potential.
“Our youth must be able to break through stereotypes of who people think they are so that they can become who they actually are and achieve their full potential,” she said. “We need to ensure that we are showing young people that the things that they want to achieve are truly possible and that even if they fall down, they can get up and keep going.”
Hunter noted that she faced several hurdles on the way to becoming the Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance chief executive officer and the third Jamaican-born woman to represent Scarborough-Guildwood constituents at Queen’s Park.
“The journey to this point in my life was not without obstacles and challenges,” she said. “But I met every one of them head on because I knew that my goal, the things that I wanted to achieve, were on the other side of those obstacles. I would get up every time I fell down with the support of family, friends and mentors who encouraged me along the way. There were positive people who believed in what I could achieve.”
The large number of family members who attended the recognition ceremony attracted Hunter’s attention.
“You being here tonight is a testament to your commitment to your children’s success and I will encourage you never to give up on them,” she said. “Walk with them through their life’s journey and show them there are countless options available to them and that they can indeed have boundless potential.”
Monarch Park Collegiate graduate, Jahnel Brookes, said her father and teachers played key roles in helping her get to this point in her life.
“Without them, I would not be standing here as a proud honoree,” said Brookes, who will enter the University of Toronto in September to pursue psychology studies.
TDSB chair and graduate, Shaun Chen, said the board is proud of the students’ accomplishments.
“We look forward to seeing all of our students of African descent reach higher levels of success,” he said. “I was part of the Africentric high school debate and we learned things from that conversation in terms of how students feel like they don’t belong and that they feel that the curriculum is not reflective of their types of histories and experiences. We have a lot of work to do as a board, but today we are here to celebrate.”
The school & community and arts awards were presented in the names of Hunter and award-winning author, Austin Clarke, respectively. Canadian Football League free-agent, Maurice Mann and Ryerson University visiting professor and CTV Canada AM co-host, Marci Ien, said they were delighted to have their names attached to the athletics and aspirational awards, respectively.