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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.

 

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