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Diasporia News of Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Source: Joe Kingsley Eyiah

The First Africentric (Black-Focused) Alternative School in Canada

Is Established in Toronto.

By Joe Kingsley Eyiah, OCT, Brookview Middle School, Toronto-Canada

September is the beginning of a new school year. In Canada, this year, September does not just mark the beginning of a new academic year but a landmark in the history of formal education in the country! The much debated “Black-Focused” School has been established in Toronto, the most multicultural city in Canada.

The debate leading to this decision had been heated and even divisive particularly among the Blacks in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). While the advocates of the black-focused school, including Professor George Sefa Dei of the University of Toronto, had argued strongly that the current mainstream Eurocentric education is not serving the needs of our black youth very well, others, especially some parents, saw the establishment of black-focused school as revisiting the era of segregation which Martin Luther King Jr. preached against some years past. However, to many, the establishment of Africentric alternative school to help keep black youth in school and to make them more successful seems like a good idea, given that the zero tolerance policy appears to have been systematically abused by some teachers and administrators to discriminate against black students.

All things considered, the TDSB has opened its first Africentric Alternative School (JK – Grade 5) which is also the first in Canada this school year (2009/2010). It is located in Sheppard Public School at 1430 Sheppard Avenue West in Toronto. As I sat in the office of the Principal (Ms. Thando Hyman-Aman) of the newly established Africentric Alternative School in Toronto, I could breathe the air of hope and confidence that surrounded the hardworking, young-looking and dynamic principal. The smile on her face dispelled the fear of failure and uncertainty that have overshadowed the reality of an Africentric Alternative School in the multi-cultural city of Toronto. The very physical environment of the school signaled the beginning of ‘a journey of hope, knowing that there will be innovation, problem solving accountability and great rewards at the end.’ Despite the excitement surrounding the opening of the first Africentric Alternative School in Toronto many challenges must be overcome if the school is to succeed in its objective to help struggling Black students in the TDSB achieve higher academic/social standards; and to prove the critics of the “Black-Focused” school wrong. I would therefore in this write-up briefly look at the program vision, the effectiveness or appropriateness of the Africentric curriculum, the key commitments of the school, and its preparedness for student and parent engagement.

Program Vision: The Africentric Alternative Newsletter published in July, 2009 describes the school vision as an approach that “includes academic and social excellence and a strong sense of community. Dignity, service and pride are the pillars of our school.” Obviously, that is not a visionless vision! As an educator, I am impressed by the six essential components of the Africentric Alternative School. On top of the list is HIGH EXPECTATIONS for ALL students (emphasis my own)! These expectations must be set for all, students, parents and teachers. It is therefore necessary for teachers to find where (which levels) the students enrolled in this pilot school are at, academically and socially, and bring the students to acceptable higher levels. This calls for diagnostic tests, benchmarks, teaching discovery, encouraging self-esteem and positive role-modeling along the way and, the use of assessment tools that meet the expectations of the Ontario Ministry of Education in the long run. However, achievements should not be tied down to the Ministry’s expectations only but also to the domain of improved and acceptable behaviors on the part of the students. The program is also to provide safe, positive, nurturing and caring learning environment. The staff has an onerous responsibility of precise teaching, monitoring data and using culturally relevant pedagogy. Moreover, the school has already formed strong partnerships with parents and community. A glaring example of this partnership can be seen in how parents strongly influenced the use of uniforms by students. The uniform is white top on black and the school crest or jacket to be worn on the shirt incorporates the Ghanaian “Gye Nyame” adinkra (African) symbol! Other areas will include high parental expectation of volunteerism including School Council and participation in after school activities including Reading Club, Music Club, Science Club and Nutrition programs.

The Africentric Curriculum: In order to make the school’s curriculum more effective and relevant to the needs of the students and society at large, the Africentric curriculum infuses into the existing Ontario Ministry of Education curriculum, the references and sources of knowledge which come from the experiences, culture and histories of people of African descent in Canada, Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. It has a strong focus in Literacy, Mathematics, Science, and Technology with positive images of African heritage and cultures within the physical environment and the instructional program. The Africentric curriculum, as would be expected, fosters a strong community based learning. This inclusive curriculum values the rich diversity of Toronto communities and the Canadian society

Preparedness for the School Year: According to the Principal, the Africentric Alternative School has about enough students and staff to begin the current academic year. The school held its first Parent meeting on June 20, 2009. Long range plans based on Nguzo Saba-the 7 Principles of Kwanzaa (Unity, Self-Determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity and Faith) have been put in place with both long and short term goals outlined. The school has already hired a competent staff comprising Heather Mark for JK; Nadia Hohn for Grade 1; Marina Hodge for Grades 2 & 3; Agatha Paul for Grades 4 & 5; Lelah Newbold for French/Gym; and Veronica Sullivan as its Librarian and Resource person. The Office Administrator of the School is Ms. Mavis Tepker, a hardworking Ghanaian-Canadian resident in Toronto. Another Ghanaian-Canadian is the cultural resource personnel who will be teaching African cultural dances to the students. Many students are still being enrolled in the program (as at the time of writing about 115 students have been registered), and as it meets the Ministry of Education’s requirement of a maximum of 20 students per class (K-3) there could be re-organization this October.

This pilot school in Toronto for struggling Black students, as the controversial debate that preceded its establishment puts it, is committed to the positive development of self-identity, self knowledge and self-esteem. It is in pursuit of excellence in all endeavors. The Africentric Program above all, is committed to an inclusive and equitable school environment; and to leadership for all and to supporting innovative educational practices,

No excuses must be allowed for its failure. All efforts must be made to bring fulfillment to its vision and achievements to its students and community. I personally take this opportunity to appeal to the TDSB to take good care of its newly “born baby” throughout the years. All will be watching!