Education Action: Toronto

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African-Centred Schools: Not Segregation, but a Path to Survival

by Murphy Brown

The framing of African centred schools as “schools based on skin
colour” has caught the attention of many people, who, not knowing the facts,
have entered the fray, condemning such “segregation.”

These schools are not about “segregation” but about saving those of our children whose lives are being ruined by the gross neglect of the education system. “Segregation” is very different. It was forced on Africans when they were relegated to ill equipped and underfunded schools. Our community has been advocating for African-centred schools to assist in addressing the overwhelming numbers of our children who are not thriving in the present system. Over the years there have been studies done and reports written (complete with recommendations) that the present education system is not working for some of our children. There have been alarming statistics about the number of African Canadian youth, who have left school without the education necessary, even to work at entry level positions at any company. Some of these young people have been pushed out of school through the racial profiling “Safe Schools Act.” This Act gave many of the white supremacists, who work in the education system, carte blanche to exercise their hatred and bigotry. Many of our children have disengaged from the education system when subjected to the rabid anti-African racism that can exist in the schools. Some of these children who have disengaged from the system are among our most intelligent and brightest minds. When they don’t see themselves represented in a positive manner in the curriculum, they often lose interest, become bored and “act out.” When white students “act out,” it is usually recognized that they need support and they usually get it. If African Canadian students “act out,” they are punished severely by different means but with the same end result: they’re suspended or expelled. Either way they are denied an education. White students can be sure that they will learn about the contributions, achievements and history of white people, whether they are studying language, social sciences, mathematics etc. History, for instance, is taught from a Eurocentric point of view to all students in the education system. This is presented as history, not white history, but white people are at the centre; it is all about their lives. In this history, white students have their sense of personhood affirmed. When our children are taught about the medieval times in Europe there is no balancing of the information with facts about African life during that period. They are given elaborate social studies units about Europe and nothing about the great African empires that thrived in West Africa during that period.

Some children cannot fathom that Africans lived in well-ordered, wealthy societies with well-established social welfare systems and centres of learning including the Sankore University at Timbuktu, Mali which was built in 989. Around the 12th century, this University had an attendance of 25,000 students in a city with a population of 100,000 people. The Sankore University is still standing today, and there is a campaign to preserve the ancient manuscripts, which include subjects as
varied as mathematics, chemistry, physics, geography, astronomy and
medicine.

It is hardly surprising that no provincial government has ever allocated stable, sustainable funding for the African Heritage Black Cultural Program. The thought of confident young African Canadians, knowledgeable about who they are, ready to compete in the job market, seems to strike fear in the hearts of some members of this society. Why is this such a threatening concept? Could it be that they are afraid that the spectre of the criminal with dark skin will be eroded over time? After all, racial profiling has its roots in the myth that was carefully constructed after slavery as a means of controlling African bodies by criminalizing the colour of our skin. Those carefully constructed myths about who is a criminal and deserving of punishment affect our lives to this day.

In spite of the naysayers, we will have African-centred schools in
Toronto. Harriet Tubman is credited with this quote: “I freed a thousand
slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were
slaves.” Many of us are still in that condition today. The myth must be
debunked that African-centred schools will be exclusively for black/African
children. The myth must be debunked that all African/black children will be
forced to attend these schools. Students regardless of their “look” will have
an opportunity, if that is their parents’ choice, to attend an African centred
school because these schools will be public schools.

Keeping Vigilant

As a community we will need to be vigilant about the issue of sabotage. We have waited patiently for too long to allow anyone to sabotage these schools and set them up for failure. We’ve seen it happen before. In the 1990s, the school board established an “alternative” African- centred program housed in a room at a Toronto secondary school. The program was taught by a brilliant, energetic and enthusiastic young African Canadian and an equally enthusiastic and qualified assistant (Child and Youth Worker) who were not given the support to make this program a success. Students who needed remedial reading and mathematics support were routinely sent to the program, which was not a remedial program, not a program for students who needed help with behavioural issues. It was a program that was supposed to give students a grounding in their history and culture at an academic level that would afford them an opportunity to access post secondary education if that was their ambition. Spending much time dealing with needy students who had been failed by the education system and in some cases could not work to the level expected for them to achieve success in the program took its toll and the teacher moved on. Successive teachers shared the same fate, and thoroughly frustrated, they too moved on. The program was eventually transferred to another school in a different area of the city where its fate is uncertain. We need to be vigilant to prevent a similar fate to the much anticipated African-centred schools. When our children need help with reading, writing, mathematics etc., we must demand that those services/supports are provided and not allow that to detract from our goal of providing safe, nurturing, supportive, African-centred environments for those of our children who attend African-centred schools.

We have to keep in mind that our provincial government and school
board officials are resolutely hostile to this initiative. It is has been a long
fight to achieve what small reforms we have and we know it is going to have
to continue well into the future. That’s what our history tells us.

In the mid 1970s a group of African Canadians met to discuss the education of the community’s children (It takes a village to raise a child.) Many of these community members had come from the Caribbean to study at Canadian post secondary institutions and settled here to raise their families. Their children were attending schools at the Toronto Board of Education (TBE) and there was deep concern about the quality of education their children were receiving. These community members contributed to the findings of the Board’s Workgroup on Multiculturalism, Race Relations and Heritage Languages, which submitted its Final Report in 1976. The findings of this Final Report helped to facilitate the institution of the Black Cultural Program at the Toronto Board of Education in 1977. In 1977, the Ontario Ministry of Education released a memorandum which read in part: “The Ministry of Education will implement a Heritage Languages Program to be effective as of July 1, 1977. For the purposes of this program, a heritage language is any language other than the two official languages of Canada.” On May 10, 1980 a conference on Education for Parents of Black Children was held at Oakwood Collegiate and was attended by more than 500 people. The people who came to the conference were concerned about the exclusion of information about Africans in the textbooks their children were using in school. In November 1985, representatives of the OPBC met with the Associate Director of Education at the TBE and identified concerns including the high drop-out rate, low self esteem, the persistent invisibility of African history and culture within the curriculum, the bottom streaming of African Canadian students, and the persistent ignorance of teachers about African history and culture. In 1982 the Toronto Board of Education (TBE) adopted a policy that allowed elementary schools to extend the school day by 30 minutes for heritage language instruction. The Toronto Teachers’ Federation was against the extension of the school day to teach the Heritage Languages Program, which came to include a Black Cultural Program. The Federation and the Board eventually agreed to binding arbitration to resolve the issue. In June 1986 the arbitration board, in a 28-page decision, found that the TBE could rightfully extend the school day by 30 minutes in schools where a majority of parents requested that model. The arbitration board also declared that “giving heritage programs prime time during the school day serves to erode and diminish the alienation that ethnic communities feel towards one of our most important institutions. Moreover in our view, the teaching of the heritage language after school serves to segregate and ghettoize elementary school children. The new-found respect and rapport that immigrant and refugee families find in an integrated system enhances the long-term prospects to educate children from immigrant families.” In the school year 1984-1985 there were 15 integrated/extended day classes run by the TBE. In July 1986, the Board released the research report Teaching Heritage Languages and Cultures in an Integrated/Extended Day. This report described the Integrated/Extended Day Heritage Language and Black Cultural Program in terms of social, cultural, economic, educational, political, demographic and psychological variables. The text and tables of this report describe and detail the methods of implementation, effects on the children, effects on the regular staff and school day, working and social accommodations between the teachers and instructors, reactions of regular staff as described by themselves and perceived by others, opinions about the instructors, distribution of information, responsibilities and duties of regular staff and instructors, involvement of parents, materials and resources and changes that should be made if the program was to be continued. In the fall of 1990 there were 21 integrated/extended day programs operating in TBE schools as part of the regular school day. In 2008, 18 years later, the African Heritage Black Cultural Program is almost extinct at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). The program barely exists as an after-school program in 4 of the TDSB’s 464 elementary schools. The integrated/extended day program limps along in 2 schools where it has been reduced to 4 hours a week spread over 5 days (50 minutes Monday to Friday) in one school and 7.5 hours a week spread over 5 days (1.5 hours Monday to Friday) in the other school, rendering it useless. The hypocrisy of the Ontario government is obvious when the Premier and the Minister of Education object to the establishment of an Africentric alternative school but do not fund the African Heritage Program. Several studies have been done which urge that children strive for success when the curriculum includes positive information about their culture.

Recommendations to implement the teaching of African culture and
history have been made from several studies and reports including the
Report on the Education of Black Students in 1987, the African-Canadian
Working Group in 1992 and the Royal Commission on Learning in 1994. In
the “Stephen Lewis Report on Racism in Ontario to the Premier – Summer
1992” which was presented on June 9th, 1992, it was reported: “Everywhere,
the refrain of the Toronto students, however starkly amended by different
schools and different locations, was essentially the refrain of all students.
Where are the courses in Black history? Where are the visible minority
teachers? Why are there so few role models? Why do our white guidance
counsellors know so little of different cultural backgrounds? Why are racist
incidents and epithets tolerated? Why are there double standards of
discipline? Why are minority students streamed? Why do they discourage us
from University? Where are we going to find jobs? What’s the use of having
an education if there’s no employment? How long does it take to change the
curriculum so that we’re a part of it?”

On June 11th, 2008 a meeting was held at 5050 Yonge Street (TDSB head office) to discuss the future of the African Heritage Program. There were no plans to expand the integrated/extended day program even though it is obvious that it is the most effective method of delivering the program. But, we are told, it is not cost effective. The powers that be at the TDSB do not think our children’s lives are worth the money it would cost to administer the program during the school day. It was suggested that many parents are not aware that the after-school program exists and that it should be advertised in the Caribbean community’s newspapers. A member of the administration complained about the cost of placing the advertisements. She did not comment on how much it costs when the TDSB advertises in the white newspapers. The hypocrisy of the administration at the TDSB is evident when recommendations from several reports over many years for an inclusive curriculum cannot be accommodated. yet, within a few months of the Falconer Report, there are concrete plans for armed, uniformed police to be housed in secondary schools across the TDSB.

The Current Struggle for an African-Centred School

Now we have an African-centered school – at least three decades after our community advocacy for such a school had begun. This school will not be a panacea for all that ails our community and the education system, but it will give some of our children an opportunity to succeed.

In seeing this motion finally pass, we should not forget there are alternative schools for other groups. The TDSB has a policy, which is 40 years old, which gives clear direction for groups/communities intent on establishing alternative schools. White communities have taken advantage of this and have had several alternative schools established to serve the children in their community. They have never had to do the song and dance that our community has been forced to endure. The Royal Commission on Learning in 1995 recommended African- centered schools to address the high number of African students who disengage from the education system. That recommendation was ignored by the province and the Boards of education. Instead, in 1965, the Board decided to establish an alternative school for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. In September 1996, the TDSB established the school in recognition of the high drop out rate of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. There were no public consultations, no deputations to the Trustees, no media circus. When the establishment of African-Centred Schools came to the Board on January 29th and it was time for public consultation and deputations to the Trustees, people from any community were given an opportunity to present their views on a matter that has distressed our community for many years. These people will never live in our skin, will never have to experience what our children experience as Africans in North America. Still, they felt that they could tell us what is right for our community and how we should feel. One look at the list of deputants should have alerted those who were not African to the fact that our history and experience is unique. Glancing at the list it was not difficult to identify by name who was Asian or, even more specifically, from which part of Asia. Yet no one could identify by name who was African and who was European because, except for two Africans on that list, we all had European names – a testament to the four hundred year enslavement of Africans by Europeans. Most of us (Africans in the Diaspora) do not even know our own names; we carry the names of the white people who enslaved our ancestors. In this country, White people can identify the country in Europe from which their ancestors emigrated. Asians can identify the country from which their ancestors emigrated because they retained their names and in many cases their language. Our ancestors were forcibly removed from their homes, stripped of their names and brutally forced over hundreds of years and many generations to forget their language. No other group of people has been so treated. Ripped away from their families and everything familiar, forced to speak European languages, eat their food, worship their gods, it is no wonder the vestiges of that brainwashing lingers in the many colonized minds in our community. Over four hundred years (which translates into many generations) of abuse, many Africans were convinced that our history began with slavery. However all the European brainwash education was not successful in wiping away thousands of years of African history, culture and contributions to the civilization of the very Europeans, who desperately tried to destroy us during the Maafa, during colonization and even today. Politicians at Queens Park who are against the idea of an African- centered school are using their white skin privilege in an effort to deny us what has been given to other groups. Dalton McGuinty, his children, his relatives and their children will never have to be concerned about feeling alienated, disenfranchised or disconnected from the curriculum in any educational institution in Canada because they will always learn about their history and culture. Those misguided souls who ask what if there was a school for white people do not seem to realize that every school in this country is for white people. They are not labelled as white schools or European schools or Eurocentric but that is what they are. European history, culture, achievements and contributions are glorified in the schools our children attend. This is so normalized that when any of our children disengage from all the whiteness that is forced down their throats, they are seen as the problem instead of the steady diet of whiteness that is force fed to them beginning in kindergarten when they are four years old and continuing for as many years as they can stomach it. It is Board policy (40 years) that communities can have alternative schools. Why are so many people afraid to see children have an opportunity to be educated outside of the “normal” European centered system? Our tax dollars fund the schools in the public education system, including the alternative schools.

We know that there will not be a Martin Luther King Jr. or an Oprah
Winfrey graduating from an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and
Universities) in Canada – these institutions have not been part of our history
– but we need to ensure that we hold the TDSB to the task of establishing
the African centred alternative school that was supported on January 28th.
We must not have another generation of our children disengaging and falling
through the cracks because there is no alternative.


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