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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 January 2008, 12:53 GMT
Canada Afrocentric school sparks debate
By Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

Generic picture of pupils
Supporters hope the move will motivate black pupils
A decision to create the first Afrocentric, or black-focused school funded by taxpayers in Canada's biggest city has sparked a heated debate.

The scheme was approved at the packed meeting of the Toronto District School Board.

It proposes the opening of a school in 2009 that will aim to use "the sources and knowledge and experiences of peoples of African descent as an integral feature of the teaching and learning environment".

The chair of the board, John Campbell, said the proposal to create the black-focused school was a response to the high drop-out rate among students of Afro-Caribbean origin in Toronto's secondary schools.

One study found the drop-out rate for young black men to be as high as 40%.

"What the vocal activists in the black community are saying is that their kids are not actively engaged in the education we're providing for them. There's no mentor there, there's no encouragement," Mr Campbell said.

The new school would create an environment "where they'll be motivated to come to school every day", he said.

'Bored'

Toronto, with a population of 5.5 million, is Canada's corporate and commercial centre.

It is considered one of the world's most successful multicultural cities, and is a magnet for immigrants - 49% of the city's population was born outside North America.

But with that relative success have come challenges, particularly in the city's northern outskirts, where poverty, poor housing conditions and crime are increasingly an issue.

Anthony Hutchinson is an economist and former university professor who has been involved in a number of youth outreach and employment programmes, and is currently the director of a large services and support agency in a suburb of the city.

This belief that if we teach kids about their social and cultural identity they're going to perform a lot better is just stupid
Anthony Hutchinson

He has spent a lot of time in Malvern, a rapidly expanding working-class neighbourhood in the city's north-east, with a skyline dominated by run-down high-rise apartment blocks.

He agrees with those who say that Afro-Caribbean students feel bored and marginalised in many Toronto schools, but says the causes are much more complex.

"Out of the 100 or so families I worked with in Malvern, I would say 80% of the families were non-supportive of their children's education. When you'd go into a lot of the houses, there was a lot of yelling and arguing. There were lots of latchkey kids."

Mr Hutchinson vehemently opposes the decision to create an Afro-centric school, and blames the school system for marginalising students.

He says the high failure rate would be more effectively addressed by smaller class sizes and more one-on-one tutoring.

"This belief that if we teach kids about their social and cultural identity they're going to perform a lot better is just stupid," he says.

"It's counter-intuitive and counter-productive. You're going to take public money from the public school system to channel towards a special interest imperative. This is a slippery slope that we do not want to go down."

Passionate debate

There was plenty of opinion in the city backing that point of view in the debate leading up to the vote.

The city's influential newspaper, The Toronto Star, voiced the concerns of many when it said the idea smacked of segregation, "which is contrary to the values of the school system and Canadian society as a whole".

File photograph of the Toronto skyline
Toronto is thought to be the first Canadian city to take this step

Radio talk shows and instant polls appeared overwhelmingly to oppose the project.

But other influential black leaders and academics in Toronto point to the success of several black-focused schools that already exist in the United States.

Carl James, a professor at York University, says it is important that teachers recognise the experience of black children not just in terms of their being black, but also "in terms of how their race is related to other interests, and tap into that".

"It has to be a school that speaks to them," he says.

At Tuesday night's meeting, passionate submissions were made from both sides.

One of the most moving came from Loreen Small, the mother of Jordan Manners, a 15-year-old who was shot to death at his school in the city in May 2007.

She appealed to the board not to approve the scheme.

"Martin Luther King and so many of our fathers fought to come together so black and white can be together, for us to sit in the front of the bus together. What we're doing is all segregating each other. We should be one," she said.

Educational alternative

But others were equally passionate in favour of the school.

One teacher spoke about how at least 13 students in his class of 16 year-olds were unlikely to graduate.

Vicki McPhee, a parent, pointed out that the school would be open to everyone.

"This is not about segregation. Our children are already segregated in the public school system. No-one ever said little white children couldn't come to this school."

There are still many decisions to be made about the future shape of the proposed school, which is slated to open in September 2009.

It will be presented as an alternative option for parents rather than as a mainstream local school.

But it is still not clear where it will be built, whether it will be an elementary or secondary school or exactly what the curriculum will look like.

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