By PATRICK HUNTER
I am somewhat saddened by this. But I understand and appreciate it.
In November 2012, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) decided to establish a task force to examine and make recommendations on improving the performance success of students of Somali descent within the schools. Those recommendations, after consultations with parents and students, were submitted and accepted by the Board.
There was a procedural controversy about the way the process of submission and acceptance happened, but that part of the matter is not salient to this discussion at this point.
Several members of the Somali community demonstrated the TDSB meeting in opposition to the recommendations. The division, which led to demonstrations by members of the Somali community, is the belief that students of Somali descent were being “singled out and labelled”. Those opposed to any special treatment believe that this would offer a negative portrayal of their children.
What saddens me about this is the resistance to this “special treatment”. Toronto’s Black Community has been through this struggle before – several times – and as recently as the struggle to establish the Africentric school. One would think that lessons would have been learned from this and other similar struggles by other communities. But then, again, opposition to change can, at times, be daunting, particularly when it appears that the change could work against you.
I remember the days when the demands for Africentric schools were opposed by many well-respected opinion leaders in the community, including the last Dr. Wilson Head. Head’s opposition was strongly influenced by his experience as an African-American growing up in a segregated system. The idea and negativity of segregated schools took hold and was certainly instrumental in delaying changes that met the needs children of African descent in Toronto schools. The first plan to establish the current Africentric program was almost derailed by many community members who still held concerns about the apparent “segregation”.
The task force was created on the basis of a number of factors. Among them were student surveys that tracked students from 2006-2011, which showed 25 per cent of Somali-speaking students had dropped out, compared to 14 per cent board-wide.
Most disconcerting was that 74 per cent of the group “fell into” one or more of the categories of special education, suspension during their school career, and/or below the provincial grade six standard.
In my mind, the Board had failed to meet its goal – that of educating its students. Of course, it will not directly accept responsibility for the failure. Very simply, the teachers and staff had failed to undertake an understanding of the Somali community’s needs and translate them into positive reinforcement to provide satisfactory outcomes.
One may argue that it would be too much to take on the responsibility of understanding the differing needs and challenges of communities. No, it is not. It would seem to me that part of teaching in the 21st century is to understand and appreciate your students’ capacity to learn, and finds ways to make it happen.
The creation of the task force was designed to remedy that shortcoming. It does not mean that somehow, miraculously, things will turn around overnight. What is expected to happen now is that faculty and staff will develop an action plan, based on the recommendations, to begin to address the shortcomings. These include ensuring that teachers better understand the challenges faced by students, and parents, of Somali descent; better communication with parents, and better understanding of who Somalis are.
Reading through the consultation findings is like reading one of the many reports on the Black community in Toronto. Negative stereotypes are formed through negative reporting on Somalis as belligerent, pirates, gang members, terrorists and so on. Thus expectations of Somali students are, at best, not very high. That, obviously, seems to have framed the attitude that parents perceive teachers take.
My hope is that the parents of Somali students will take a closer look at the struggles of the Black community and, indeed other communities, in trying to obtain better responses from schools. Those struggles are part of the framework that made this task force possible. Efforts should now be directed at making sure that the recommendations are implemented with accountability and that tracking of results are continued to ensure that what is expected is achieved.
It is worth reminding ourselves that changes in administration can seriously affect intent and therefore results. There are elections this fall for trustees. New people entering the Board may come with different priorities – priorities that can sidetrack or change goals and alter budgets which can change directions.
Without sounding too negative and suspicious, in this climate we should operate with the caution that there are those who oppose plans like these. Some may be more vocal in expressing their opposition. Others will oppose quietly and engage in strategies that can have a – to be kind – re-directional outcome.