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Africentric high school is approved, but it still needs a home

Sekou Osbourne, Abeni Osbourne and Njau Osbourne head home after a day at Toronto's Africentric Alternative School.

Michelle Siu/michelle siu The Globe and Mail

It's believed it will be a first for Canadian public education – an Africentric high school approved by the Toronto District School Board this week – but it will need to find a home before it can become a reality.

Staff are seeking an existing school that has extra space to share, easy access to public transit and a parent council in place that views the Africentric model favourably.

Finding a site has been a problem in the past. The Toronto school board's previous attempt to find a home for the controversial high school nearly derailed the idea. Parents at Oakwood Collegiate, in the city's west end, were so appalled last spring at a proposal that they host an Africentric program in a wing of their school that board staff were forced to drop the issue.

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The new search is expected to take months. Manon Gardner, the TDSB's Chief Academic Officer, said the board will be looking primarily in the northwest and east ends of the city, where a number of elementary Africentric school students live.

It's been two years since the city's Africentric elementary school opened its doors, sharing space with Sheppard Public School, and it's widely considered a success. Students beat the provincial average on standardized tests, enrolment is booming with 185 students and there's a waiting list about 20 names long.

Parents say their children are thriving. They feel a sense of belonging, have found role models in their teachers, and gained self confidence.

"With this school our kids are supported all around," said Nicole Osbourne James, who has three children who attend the school and hopes to send them on to the high school. "There's a tremendous sense of inclusion."

But separating students based on race makes many people uncomfortable. It can look like segregation, not support. After the board approved a task force to look at the possibility of a Portuguese-focused school earlier this year, some parents were left wondering how far the TDSB will go.

And some doubts linger.

"There is a real concern about kids moving from an Africentric elementary school to an Africentric high school," said Kevin Gosine, a sociologist at Brock University. "Will they be learning to operate in a diverse society? They're not likely going to end up working in an all-black work environment."

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The school was envisioned as a way to tackle the problem that black students are among the most likely within the TDSB to live in poverty, with as many as 40 per cent dropping out.

To help engage black students more in the classroom, the Africentric school developed a fresh take on the Ontario curriculum – one that curbed the European biases in classes such as history and English, and used culturally relevant props in math.

Principal Thando Hyman-Aman said it was a major undertaking to rethink the curriculum, and that high school courses, which are more diverse, will likely be even more labour intensive to change.

However, parents are enthusiastic about the results. And at Wednesday's meeting, trustees began discussing ways to import parts of the Africentric curriculum to schools throughout the board.

Many of the adjustments are subtle. In the classrooms and hallways of the Africentric Alternative School, near Sheppard Avenue West and Keele Street, portraits of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King hang in the prominent places usually reserved for the likes of Queen Elizabeth and Stephen Harper. Students wear a basic blue and white uniform with a colourful African-print vest overtop.

Lorna Blake has a grandson in Grade 5 at the school who she said is reading at a Grade 12 level. At his old school, she believes his teachers didn't push him.

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"Now he has a teacher who he can look at as a role model and who has high expectations of him," she said.

Ms. Blake has five family members, grandchildren and nieces, who attend the school. She is hopeful that the high school will open in the fall of 2013, in time to admit the elementary school's oldest pupils.


Test scores

The Toronto District School Board's Africentric alternative schools are envisioned as a way to reach at-risk students, and shrink the 40 per cent dropout rate among black students.

The elementary school now has 185 students who are posting above-average scores on standardized tests, but critics question whether the school, which boasts one of the most active parent councils in the GTA, is reaching high-needs students.

The data suggest they are, according to the TDSB's Chief Academic Officer, Manon Gardner.

Elementary schools within the board are ranked on a scale known as the Learning Opportunities Index. The scale looks at socioeconomic factors, including household income and education levels, in order to measure factors external to the classroom that influence student success.

The schools are ranked, and the lower the ranking, the more challenges the students face.

The Africentric Alternative School earns a 56, according to Ms. Gardner. That means it students are at relatively high risk of struggling in school or dropping out, compared to the other 450 elementary schools within the board.

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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