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Why educational apartheid is not the answer to curbing dropout rates for specific racial and ethnic groups

Students stand in segregated lines at a school entrance

(Illustration: Taylor Callery)

The tall black man was angry. “I want to propose 10 seconds of silence in memory of Brother Dudley Laws,” he said into the microphone, his voice booming through the auditorium at Oakwood Collegiate. It was question period at a raucous, emotionally raw public meeting in March, called after news leaked that the Toronto District School Board had recommended embedding the city’s first Africentric high school inside Oakwood. Parents, students, teachers, alumni and neighbours had filled every creaky, green-leatherette flip-up seat.

Laws, the civil rights activist, had died the week before. The man hoping to commemorate him applauded his own suggestion, smacking hands the size of baseball mitts together, before returning to his seat. I half hoped that Karen Falconer, the school board superintendent who was chairing the meeting, would rule him out of order. But Falconer immediately rose to her feet and announced a moment of silence.

It was like a scene from the American pre–civil rights era of the 1950s and ’60s, except that this time the tables were turned: angry blacks demanding segregation before a shell-shocked mixed-race community, while uniformed cops kept wary watch.

Civil rights redux? Or civil wrongs? Subdividing schools into silos is the TDSB’s latest strategy for fixing chronic underachievement among specific racial and ethnic groups. At the Oakwood meeting, Jim Spyropoulos, the board’s superintendent of inclusive schools (a position created last spring), rattled off the list. “I’m going to name the groups that are underachieving: blacks, specifically of Caribbean origin; Aboriginals; Portuguese; Latinos; Middle Eastern.”

The idea is that students who are failing can build self-esteem, become more engaged and ultimately succeed if they’re surrounded by others like themselves. Toronto already has two segregated elementary schools, one for blacks and one for Aboriginals. Now two new high schools are under consideration: one for black students (proposed at Oakwood), nearly 40 per cent of whom don’t graduate; and one for Portuguese students, who have a 38 per cent dropout rate. The Portuguese school proposal is in its very early stages, one of several options being considered by a new TDSB task force that’s expected to deliver its recommendations later this year.

Research on the success of segregated learning is scarce. The TDSB, while considering Toronto’s first Africentric school (now embedded in Sheppard Public School in North York), looked at the effectiveness of black-focused schools in the United States and found little in the way of comparative data. Even where there is data, it’s impossible to account for differences in class, culture or home environment. The TDSB report concluded there were few studies that clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of Africentric schools or programs.

In the absence of solid research—and desperate to remedy the problem—the TDSB forged ahead anyway, framing the move toward segregated learning as an attempt to give parents more choice. But compartmentalization won’t address the main cause of educational disaffection among marginalized students—specifically, an inequitable and inflexibly funded system that’s already divided into have and have-not schools.

Toronto’s First Nations School (at Dundas and Broadview) has been operating for 34 years and runs from junior kindergarten through Grade 8. It was created to provide tradition-based learning for children of Anishinaabe descent; teachers give out feathers for achievement in academics, behaviour, attendance and participation. Today, the school’s 92 kids serve as an example of what can happen to a vulnerable student population that is isolated and, it would seem, largely forgotten.

In the most recent test results available, for 2008–10, 92 per cent of third graders failed to meet the provincial standard for reading and math. Eighty per cent were below the standard in writing. Sixth graders tested even more poorly. A stunning 100 per cent were below the provincial standard in math, 93 per cent in reading and 87 per cent in writing. Many of the students have learning disabilities, which may explain the low test scores. Clearly, segregating them has not solved their problems. The school has posted such horrific results, it’s bordering on criminal that it hasn’t been shut down.

At the Africentric elementary school, which opened two years ago, the kids sing two anthems during morning assembly: “O Canada” and the African-American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Teachers offer an African take on everything from reading to math: when kindergarteners learn the principles of geometric shapes, for instance, their teacher shows them the corresponding shapes on an African Ndebele hut. Never mind that such cultural symbols may hold little significance for a child of, say, third-generation Jamaican-Canadians.

The school didn’t have a Grade 6 at the time of the last testing period, so the only measurements available are for its third graders. These are terrific: 81 per cent of its students are at or above the provincial standard in both writing and math; 69 per cent are at or above that standard in reading. The results are encouraging, but also what you might expect from a new school with small class sizes (the inaugural third grade class had only 16 children) and from students with obviously engaged parents (the very act of “choosing” the school is a good indication that they are more involved in their child’s education).

I’m not against specialized curricula, but having separate schools for blacks or other ethnic students is as offensive as white-only washrooms. I object to educational apartheid because it turns back the clock on civil rights. Nearly a century ago, my late aunt Ming broke through the colour barrier in Victoria, B.C. Family lore has it that on her first day of school, she took one look at the dingy classrooms in Chinatown and marched over to the school for white children. Miraculously and mysteriously, they enrolled her, and she went on to graduate from the University of Toronto as one of Canada’s first female Chinese anesthetists.

Schools socialize us into becoming Canadians. They help us cross class and racial lines so we can head into the workplace. Separate schools with monocultural learning environments are antithetical to the principles on which our public school system is based: openness, integration, cohesion. How can you eliminate racism by segregating along racial lines?

At Oakwood that night, Kativa Turner, a 17-year-old student at Malvern Collegiate, was one of the audience members who spoke. “You guys don’t understand my pain,” she said, before explaining that she had waited her “whole life” for an Africentric high school. Alternately tearful and spitting mad, she added, “Turner is not my name. That’s the name of my slave owner. Nobody ever thinks of that.”

When my grandfather came to B.C. as a coolie in 1880, the government bureaucrat who processed his entry anglicized his Chinese name as “Hooie.” Imagine his pain. Which was nothing, of course, compared to enduring the anti-Chinese riots in the province in 1907. But there’s no point in competing over personal histories. Everyone has one, and some are sadder than others. Our problem isn’t the past. It’s the present, and our future.

  • Neville


  • Sharon

    Clearly Jan Wong has no idea what the Civil Rights movement was about. The experiences of aunt Ming and grandfather Hooie might make her feel as though she has insight into this issue, at best it is laughable.

  • Roger


    I read the article and have the impression that Jan’s arguments are coherent and evidence-based (or rather show the lack of evidence). I read your post and am left wondering what the Civil Rights movement was about and why Jan’s insight is laughable. Do tell…

  • SR

    when we look at success of segregated schools, we need to look at more than academic achievement to measure their success. if there is a significant amount of kids with learning difficulties and disabilities in a classroom, we need to get data that shows the personal achievement of the students, not based on standardized tests for that grade level.
    segregated schools may not be a perfect solution, but the fact is that these kids are failing and dropping out of school and the system as it is is not working for them. i applaud the attempt to address some of the gaps in our system with more culturally responsive approaches.

  • bird

    It insulting to people who have suffered as a result of apartheid and segregation for people like Jan Wong to use these words without understanding the the true meaning of these words. Jan Wong needs to be educated about apartheid and segregation. The truth is that these schools are not beeing propsed for everyone. Also, when it comes to education one size does not fit all. Furthermore, she lacks insight as to the structure of schools in Toronto. Many schools like our communities are already seperated by race and socio-economic class.

  • Ria

    I agree with the comments previosuly submitted, these segregated schools are unfortunate but may be needed because there is so much division between groups in this City along racial divides but i disagree with that Afrocentric school being based on African themes,etc because there are Black people from all over the world and would rather have my child attend a School geared towards everyone. But we must not ignore the fact that there are alot of problems with racism among all groups in this City and if people want to be accepted and respected they must learn to treat everyone as human beings with respect and acceptance.

  • Roger

    But there is no data to suggest these segregated schools decrease dropout rates, is there?

    I’d be much more inclined to get behind Pathways To Education, pioneered in Regent Park:

    It has actually delivered independently verified empirical results.

  • rod

    What does the Civil Rights Movement have to do with Canada? The majority of the Black population in the GTA and Canada are descended from immigrants of a diverse group of nations. Painting them with the same brush and pretending that they are of the same group is just making excuses and is as ignorant as branding people with narrow eyes as Asian.

  • Pata

    1. There is no relationship between this education issue and the 50s and 60s civil rights movement in the United States and the author’s attempt to draw similarities was illogical and poorly conceived. Her use of the word “Apartheid” also seems to be quite disingenuous.

    2. “It was like a scene from the American pre–civil rights era of the 1950s and ’60s, except that this time the tables were turned: angry blacks demanding segregation”
    Wow! This author is really laying it on thick. These black citizens were not demanding segregation, they were asking for a chance to educate their children in a way that might improve their educational performance; that’s it. Apparently, the current system of education was not effective in adequately educating their children (for whatever reason) and they were looking for an alternative. I’ve heard the criticism of these parents and/or concerned citizens but what I have not heard or read is the credit that should be given for these people being concerned and actually involved in trying to find a solution. This is puzzling to me. As for the good old American style segregation, me and my family lived through it – this author should dispense with using these terms to bolster her argument because either she does not understand them or she is trying to pull a fast one.

    3. “The tall black man was angry.”
    “angry blacks demanding segregation before a shell-shocked mixed-race community, while uniformed cops kept wary watch.”
    “Alternately tearful and spitting mad, she added, “Turner is not my name”

    Words are not just means of communications; they are tools. Let’s look at the picture the author is painting with her “tools” shall we?
    – Tall Black Man Angry
    – Angry Blacks
    – Spitting Mad
    – Demanding
    – Shell Shocked “mixed-race” community
    – Uniformed Cops kept wary watch

    As an African American, I am used to this type of journalism – it’s nothing new and quite transparent although it has proven quite effective on the white masses.

    4. While this school may or may not yield the results that these concerned citizens are looking for, it is quite obvious that different (and maybe innovative) pedagogy is required to properly and adequately educate these children. Unfortunately, I did not read any suggestions from this author on what she proposes as an alternative to the Africentric school. No suggestions were made as to how this education problem should be solved. That’s if she sees the lack of effective education for these youth as a problem.

    5. The author’s attempt to draw parallels between her Aunt Ming and Grandfather’s immigration stories were unsuccessful.

  • dawn

    Very well said Pata.

  • M5SLIB
  • bird

    we cannot continue to call our society a multicultural one and yet only teach about the French, the British and the Greeks and Romans. Yes our current school curriculum is very eurocentric. Student going to school in Canada today learn very little about all of the other groups that live in the world or even here in Canada.

  • spartanplayer

    I really feel sorry for anyone who thinks that attending a school filled only with students from their cultural background will improve their academic performance. To improve grades and a chance at post-secondary education, it must come from parents and guardians from a very early age that education is the be-all and end-all. Parents need to be vigilant about homework, attendance and classroom behaviour. Forget racism, classism et al. It`s not going away; get over it. There are cultures in Toronto that were demeaned and prejudiced when they first arrived. Instead of crying fowl, they put their heads down and got to work. They worked at the most difficult and lowly jobs. The Italians made their mark by literally building this town; the Greeks made their mark by feeding us. More importantly they emphasized the importance of education to thier children who today are our teachers, lawyers, doctors, etc. I`ll bet that if you go back five or six generations with these two groups you will find that they are also decendants of slavery. Excuses would have only held back these groups.
    Also, about EQAO scores, they are really meaningless as the non-specific subject contents of the test are taught from day of the school year. As the test days approach, teachers handout the past years` tests for practice. Finally, EQAO scores directly correspond witht the socio economic neighbourhood of the school.

  • Rico

    From the arguments raised by this author, it is obvious that she has not done her research on what Afrocentric education entails. First of all, its not segregation. It is voluntary separation. Segregation was for a negative reason. This is for a positive reason to try to improve the outcomes of black students since nothing in the school system seems to be working to help them do better. The curriculum is very Eurocentric and our students hardly see themselves as the victors, heroes, inventors or any other positive roles in the curriculum. Afrocentric education is to help give a more balanced perspective and to build self esteem etc.
    We must also realize that schools go further than academics. Schools are there to create people and to build social capital. The author dumped on the aboriginal school because of the low eqao scores which only acount for a small percentage of what happens in schools.What about the other benefits that the school provides for these students and their community.
    At the end of the day, there is no one sollution to fixing the problem of low achievement for these racialized students.

  • Rico

    However, the school board needs to experiment new ways to improve the outcomes of students that are not doing well.
    I suggest that the author of this article do more research before she publishes an article like this to the masses. A lot of people are uninformed about this issue and she is not helping to inform them. Give all the facts first, then send out your opinions.
    And for those of you who want to know about afrocentric education read articles by george dei,Andrew allen,karl james and many others from the U.S.

  • Janis

    I believe the author’s analogy was completely appropriate. There is no competition of suffering- as we know many of us have suffered racism and anti-semitism here and abroad. The author’s point being that her ancestors were not treated well yet managed to succeed through, I am guessing a lot of hard work and determination, has been lost on the above commenters. Then again- it has been my observation that the culture of victimization is not really interested in hearing others success stories. Rather, they, like that student who was “spitting mad”, prefer to remain victims- as in this case of slavery. By the way, I am pretty sure my last name was changed about a dozen times in the last four generations- either trying to evade Nazis or offer easier pronouciations for Canadian immigration officers. Canada is a wonderful country and please come into our classes and witness first hand why some kids do better than others (hint- it isn’t all about money and race…’work ethic’ and ‘respect for education’ are key ingredients).

  • bird

    I cannot understand why people like Jan Wong and others want black people to forget about slavery and the civil rights movement and “move on”. We don’t ask other groups to forget about their experiences (e.g no one would dare ask Jews to forget about their suffering during the 2nd world war. However, this is the way racism works in Canada. And yes history is a subject worth teaching (including slavery). Talking about the suffering of blacks at the hands of white society does not mean that one has a victim mentality.

  • Orville

    Jan Wong is clearly a very ignorant and racist woman. First, Ms. Wong compares the USA civil rights era in the United States to Canada. Ms. Wong seems to forget that racism has existed in Canada for centuries and Canada was a colonial state. Ms. Wong also ignores the racism of teachers. One of the problems I see in the education system is the paucity of teachers of colour. Children need to see people that looks like them in the classroom. Another concern of mine is the content children are taught. Canadian history loves to gloss over the racism that black people have experienced and continue to experience. I remember when I was a kid I never had a black teacher until I was in grade eight! All my teachers when I was a child were white.

  • Jules

    Jan Wong, I would like to know where you get your opinions (since, after all, that is all they are) about public school education. Is it from your experiences or those of your own children? Or is it through looking askance at the public school system that you don’t take part in, where children are actually more than just the numbers reported in standardized tests, and parents are searching for solutions and not just comfortably making judgments? As a teacher, and an advocate for Aboriginal education, and as an Asian Canadian, I agree with an understanding that separate schooling is an uncomfortable idea that may hearken us to another ‘s’ word, but it sounds from your article like you are just buying into a comfortable idea of ‘multiculturalism’ or what ‘Canadian society’ molds us to be. If you are not sure why students at First Nations school are not doing well (you mention learning disabilities and then say that the school should be locked up in the space of one paragraph), then do your research and you will find that the story, as most stories and histories in Canada go, is complex and troubled as a result of 500 years of colonization of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. I understand that identity politics focusing on ‘us’ and ‘them’ can lead to dissonance rather than community healing, but I don’t think that is what for the most part the parents urging for solutions for their children are doing here. I’m sorry, but as much as I understand how racism hurts, it sounds like it is you that is using your personal heritage (i.e., identity politics) to give you a right to dismiss the systemic barriers that have led to low achievement for black students in Canada (who also have disparate histories). It was brave of you to touch this topic, but offensively un-researched. This is really an opinion piece in the guise of an informed piece of journalism.

  • LH

    I am a young black woman in Toronto and I 100% agree with this article. Having segregated schools is such a terrible idea and will most likely hold black students back further than before. I grew up with white friends, asian friends, etc. We were living as young Canadian kids and I feel that my upbringing allowed me to be successful. Everyone has a history but is it worth reliving if the present and future can be so much better? I wish this africentric school didn’t exist. The problem is the home, the parents, the ethics, the values, and the inability to take responsibility for one’s life!

  • Glen

    I have to review this article for a school assignment, and I’m dissapointed at the quality of it. The author needs to research more before writing an article on such a controversial topic.

  • Alana

    YES! @ Sharon… Education apartheid is a 40% drop out rate among racialized students and a %12 drop out rate among non-racialized students…

  • Aaaa

    I think Wong is correct, although could have used some more eloquent wording. Segregating everyone would just recreate the barriers we fought so hard to break down in the first place.

    Not to mention, the schools populations decline every year, can we really afford to a) build all new schools for everyone and b) divert the populations to a new school?

    I think that if we segregated everyone again, it would be another time of ignorance and using stereotypes to base our opinions of non-white, non-heterosexual, non-English speaking North Americans…

    I also believe that we should remember the past experiences of who came before us (the girl with the name of her family’s slave owner) we should not let that dictate how we live our lives and allow us to live in fear, anger and despair. We should be able to look back and recognize that it was a sad time, a terrible time for our families, but that they persevered lived on, and we are here, able to have a free life today. We are moving forward and we can put it behind us. Don’t forget about slavery, about the hardships of your family, but also don’t forget that there are children still living with it today, despite the fact that we can’t see it in front of us

    No one is asking people to “forget” times of slavery, but we must also realize that we are striving for change and, at least in North America, we all have mainly equal opportunity, bar some of the remaining racism and inequality in pay between sexes in races (which although is not much, is still significant). Your great-great-great grandparent being a slave should not control how you live your life, it shouldn’t control that you have the freedom to wake up every morning and go to school, and participate in a way you want to. People whose families were owned by slaves should be pushing for better social justice, for equality in pay and for abolishing discrimination, but being on the fighting lines for building segregated schools where we can just watch as the barriers build back up and our blended communities drift apart.

  • Normando782

    It is not because of race. Unfortunately many 14-15 year old girls drop aut because of pregnancy. Many male youth drop out because of peer pressure to be in gangs. Some drop out beause they have to help earn money to help support the family members because of no father figure. And some drop out because of easily available welfare money and being prepared to live on it.

  • Normando782

    There were few black teachers and I might also say few minority ethnic teachers when Orville went to school. All my teachers were white Ango Saxons in public school and there were two white ethnic teachers in high school. That did not prevent my claamates and myself from getting an education and we came from a multitude of minority communities.

  • hernandayoleary

    “The tall black man was angry”

    O yes, right away Ms. Wong rolls out here racist stereotype of the angry black man.

    “It was like a scene from the American pre–civil rights era of the 1950s and ’60s, except that this time the tables were turned: angry blacks demanding segregation before a shell-shocked mixed-race community, while uniformed cops kept wary watch.”

    So now black people who want their kids to succeed without the oppression of racist white fire proof union teachers are like angry white racist terrorist in the 50s and 60s who murdered children and firebombed non-whites.

    “Toronto already has two segregated elementary schools, one for blacks and one for Aboriginals.”

    Why did Wong leave out the:

    -Chinese language schools

    -Indian focused schools

    -French Schools

    -Irish protestant schools, yes publicly funded

    -Italian Roman Catholic schools

    -Gay and LGBT focused schools

    -Jew schools

    -Islamic Schools

    -67 other specialist schools around race, culture, and or lifestyle.

    Funny how that works, you have two segregated schools eh wongy, one for blacks and one for aboriginals but I assume the whites just go to outer space for school.

    “The TDSB report concluded there were few studies that clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of Africentric schools or programs.”

    Why did she ignore the more comprehensive bob rae government report that recommened this 20 years ago and predicted precisely what happened would happen without it?

    “I’m not against specialized curricula, but having separate schools for blacks or other ethnic students is as offensive as white-only washrooms.”

    Non-sense. africentric schools are about giving black students a chance by having them protected from white racist teachers who destroy their entire educational possibilities and future and life by throwing them out the classroom for dropping a pencil or for the crime of being black. There is no comparison to a white only washroom and is just gutter journalism.

    “I object to educational apartheid because it turns back the clock on civil rights.”

    This is not educational apartheid

    “Schools socialize us into becoming Canadians. They help us cross class and racial lines so we can head into the workplace. Separate schools with monocultural learning environments are antithetical to the principles on which our public school system is based: openness, integration, cohesion. How can you eliminate racism by segregating along racial lines?”

    Do they, so are immigrants who pour in here and take jobs without going to school less Canadian? Schools actually do not help all peoples cross racial lines. I walk into a high school that is diverse and the italian sit together, the blacks sit together, the jews sit together, the asians sit together, your on another planet lady. Our schools have racist teachers in the class room and kids having race war and racial insult fest, there is no integration or cohesion.

    By segreating along racial lines you remove the youth exposure to racist elements. In fact it is best we do this. Children can be cruel and racist are not prepared to interact with other races. These people will have better ability to interact with other races and have less resentment. Can you imagine the lone black, native, asian kid being tortured to death by white students being called all manner of racial slurs? You ignore that people are killing themself from this kind of racism? Nothing is more damaging to race relations than forced integration of children. If there are black/native/latino people who want to send their children into the jaws of the racist white teachers then so be it, but they shouldn’t be forced to.

    “When my grandfather came to B.C. as a coolie in 1880, the government bureaucrat who processed his entry anglicized his Chinese name as “Hooie.” Imagine his pain. Which was nothing, of course, compared to enduring the anti-Chinese riots in the province in 1907.”

    So you are a troll, is this a troll or fake news website? Comparing Holocaust survivors of the great British Holocaust against africans where over 250 million african people were killed in the American killing fields known as the Americas where renaming of African victims prepped for slaughter was part of global genocide to your immigrant ancestor and a border guard not being able to properly spell or pronounce his surname as the same thing is insulting and absurd to say the least. You are indeed a very hateful person.

  • hernandayoleary

    Non-sense, choosing to change your name is different than having someone change your name as part of a genocidal plot that resultes in the death of hundreds of millions.

  • hernandayoleary

    Pointing to an exception to a rule is not a valid point for upholding the rule. In nazi germany, 300,000 jews were given passes from the nazi government that allowed them to be nazis including the collaborator jews. By your logic those 300,000 exceptions are proof that the nazi system was favourable to jews.

  • hernandayoleary

    It is easy to dismiss the advantages of being a majority in a school environment in a whitemajority environment being white.

    You really think Italians and Greeks are doing great in education you need a head fix. Never mind these groups are white and won’t face the same discriminations.

    Telling a person who is a victim of racism to get over it, is not very productive.

    So your explanation for the high equao results of the africentric school is that they are richer but when they were in the same school under a different name the were poorer?