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The hottest button in Toronto's school system today -- even hotter than the "culture of violence" that's alleged to permeate the schools -- is the high failure rate of black students. Under pressure from parents and activists, the school board is moving ahead to set up an Afrocentric school in hopes it will improve black achievement.

Most people I know, including some of colour, loathe the idea, because it smacks of the bad old days of segregation. But there is a case for black schools - a case based on providing choice for those who have none. No one makes it better than Howard Fuller, former superintendent of public schools in Milwaukee.

"The public sees separation as a last resort," he said in Toronto last week. "But the fact of the matter is that you already have separation. Poor people in Toronto are not swimming in the mainstream. Their kids are failing in the marketplace. That's your separation."

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Dr. Fuller, who's black, is a veteran of Milwaukee's voucher system - a highly controversial program that allows low-income families (mostly black) to choose alternatives to the public schools. More than 17,000 low-income students are now enrolled in private alternative schools, with tuition paid for by the state. Voucher programs are regarded in many quarters as a product of right-wing ideology, but he sees them as an instrument of social justice. "Thousands of lives have been saved because this program exists," he insists. Currently, he's involved with a small, new high school whose goal is to graduate every kid and send them all to college. In the first graduating class last June, 11 out of 12 students did just that.

Mr. Fuller makes a compelling point. Students who choose black-focused schools already feel estranged from the larger society. The purpose of these schools is to give them a solid sense of themselves, as well as the skills and confidence they need to function in the mainstream. Mr. Fuller tries to show his students where success can take them. Recently he took some of them to San Francisco, showed them the Golden Gate Bridge, and asked, "Would you like to be able to travel?" Of course they would. "What we say to them is, 'Here's where we want to get you.' "

Mr. Fuller argues that middle-class parents already have ample school choice - such as the ability to move into a better school district. Denying choice to low-income families amounts to discrimination. "Their children may be trapped in schools that more affluent parents who oppose choice would never tolerate for their own children."

Milwaukee's voucher program has been operating for 18 years. It has not been an unblemished success. One high-school academy for black males failed "because we did not address the issue of quality."

Here's where Canadian school boards need to listen up. Mr. Fuller insists it's not enough for a black school to have a supportive environment, black role models and feel-good messages. It also needs high-quality teaching and academic focus. "There's no substitute for establishing high expectations from Day One, and then fighting to make them real every day."

Sadly, high expectations are deeply out of fashion in Ontario. Students are no longer penalized for such lapses as plagiarism or skipping tests. Teachers are strongly discouraged from failing students who don't do the work. Any Afrocentric school is bound to face challenges, but the prevailing culture of low expectations will surely doom it to failure.

Mr. Fuller is the first person to acknowledge that black-focused schools don't always work. But some do. He figures we won't lose anything by trying. "I'm less worried about one school than about the failure to educate a large number of young people of colour," he says. "If we can produce more young people capable of participating in society, society will only benefit."

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About the Author

Margaret Wente is one of Canada's leading columnists. As a writer for The Globe and Mail, she provokes heated debate with her views on health care, education, and social issues. She is a winner of the National Newspaper Award for column-writing.Ms. Wente has had a diverse career in Canadian journalism as both a writer and an editor. More


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