Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

CANADA: Alternative School Sparks Fears of Division and Isolation

TORONTO, Dec 8 2011 (IPS) - The Toronto public school board has approved the second ‘Africentric’ Alternative School despite persistent criticism that the format attracts mainly black students and is equivalent to segregation in a country that prides itself on national unity regardless of ethnic differences.

Although the Toronto public school board has approved a second 'Africentric' Alternative school, criticism and fears of segregation persist. Credit: Brian Lane Winfield Moore/ CC by 2.0

Although the Toronto public school board has approved a second 'Africentric' Alternative school, criticism and fears of segregation persist. Credit: Brian Lane Winfield Moore/ CC by 2.0

The impetus behind the school, which incorporates the perspectives and history of people of African descent into provincial curriculum, was research indicating that feelings of disengagement among black students has led to an alarming 40 percent drop-out rate.

After the first such elementary school opened in 2009, Toronto educators approved in mid-November a plan to open a similar learning institution for high school students within the next two years.

Academic Carl James, who began this month to conduct research with the Toronto District School Board on the feasibility of the Africa-focused curriculum, told IPS that experimenting with new forms of education to determine what works for students is always worthwhile.

However, there is no solid data about how this particular effort is faring, said James, the director of the Centre for Education and Community in the faculty of education at York University in Toronto. He anticipates completing his work, which will also help the school board address feelings of detachment and marginalisation among other student groups, in three years.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that Africentric school students are more connected to their educational system, parents are more engaged in their children’s studies and teachers and the school board feel more positive about the experience, noted James, who has had discussions with black parents for years about the “possibilities of such schools”.

The school board did not respond to IPS queries about the success of the Africa-focused initiative, but the elementary Africentric school has reported above-average scores on standardised tests and a long student waiting list.

Test scores are climbing under this particular model because parents are more engaged with their children’s school, extra resources are funnelled into the program and supporters are determined that the new effort thrive, Toronto school board trustee Gerri Gershon told IPS.

But ultimately, separating kids may have little to do with the apparent success of the concept, she warned.

While “a component of the black community” may be well intentioned by advocating separate schools as an important way to address the academic-related problems plaguing many black students in Ontario schools, most black parents do not favour this route, Gershon noted.

The Toronto school board has attempted a variety of solutions to deal with different styles of student learning – teacher sensitivity training, special programs for students with behavioural issues and special education programs, said James, adding that some students have responded to these efforts while others have not.

Moreover, Gershon said that educators have tried to tailor their teaching styles to individual students, while some high schools and middle schools have more inclusively focused on black history.

The Ontario government allows school boards to develop engaging and relevant programming and community partnerships in order to address different individual learning needs – especially those at risk of leaving high school without a diploma – and also tracks student performance, said education ministry spokesman Gary Wheeler.

Indeed, Canada already has public or government-funded religious schools and same-sex schools, James wrote in an essay two years ago.

‘Alternative’ precedents

The Toronto District School Board also has nearly 40 alternative schools, including “Specialised Schools” catering to visual and performing arts, and technology, as well as specific programs for gifted students and high performing athletes, he wrote. Additionally, he told IPS, the board has paid attention to youth with disabilities.

Although much of the media focus has been on the plight of underperforming black youth, other groups have also found the educational system problematic.

The Toronto school board issued a 2010 draft report on managing achievement gaps among racial groups that reported the majority of students with high drop-out rates, weak test scores, low school attendance and high suspension rates come from aboriginal, black (African heritage), Hispanic, Portuguese or Middle Eastern backgrounds.

These students have the lowest family income levels and are more likely to live in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged areas of the city, according to the report.

The draft report noted that members of the aboriginal community have already shown interest in improving educational opportunities for their youth through the concept of an “Aboriginal school of choice”.

Yet worry is mounting in some quarters that schools tailored to a specific ethnic group open a dangerous door in Canadian society.

Breeding divisiveness

“I don’t think that we should be separating people in education in any way, shape or form,” argued Brian Dunstan, an anchor for the Sun News Network in Toronto who has closely followed development of the alternative schools. “I’m always against any type of system that separates people based on race and culture.”

While it is true that the schools teach from an Africentric point of view but are open to students from all ethnic backgrounds, attracting youth from non-African cultures is unlikely, Dunstan told IPS. He added that the school concept only breeds divisiveness.

Black youth, particularly those living in the inner city, will find that “getting back into the mainstream” of Canadian society is difficult after spending four years or longer in an educational system strictly catering to African or black Canadian culture, he warned.

Dunstan feared that black Canadians who have had limited interaction with citizens of other ethnic backgrounds under this system, particularly at a young age, will not know “how to deal with people” or immerse themselves in situations that are foreign to their comfort zone.

The country is teetering on a “very slippery slope” after four or five decades of fighting for equality and rights, he cautioned. Narrowly focused ethnic schools are a “backwards step”, he said, adding that there must be another solution such as enhancing Africentric curriculum in all schools.

Even more troubling, he noted, the Africentric school concept may pave the way to other ethnic communities’ lobbying for separate educational facilities. “Where does it stop?” Separating races in the educational system “flies in the face of everything that Canada is built on”, Dunstan said.

Gershon, the trustee, opposes dividing youth according to religion or culture, and described this kind of separation as unrealistic in a multi-ethnic society and conducive to making kids inward-looking. Yet she is reluctant to predict the potential impact of an Africentric, or another ethnically focused, school on students once they enter university or the work force.

As it stands, Gershon is in talks with the Toronto District School Board’s director of education and other trustees to make curriculum throughout the city less Euro-centric and thus more inclusive of all cultures.

She aims to integrate issues like ethnic genocide, the history of World War II in Asia and aboriginal history into the regular school format, a plan which may derail the possibility of future schools oriented toward one culture in the city.

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