Toronto school board considers separate school for black students
McGuinty says diversity is better, though it is up to the school board
Macleans.ca | Nov 07, 2007 |
Creating an alternative school tailored to young black students in Toronto has ignited a passionate debate, pitting those who vehemently oppose segregating kids against others who say the current system is failing young black students and driving them into a life of crime.
The Toronto District School Board is exploring the idea of creating Ontario's first "African-centred alternative school," which would target students from kindergarten to Grade 8 and is holding community meetings to gauge reaction in the next few weeks. While many argue such a school would start the province on a dangerous and slippery slope, advocates say people have to realize the status quo isn't working.
"We're just spitting out more kids that are destined for failure," said Louis March of the African Canadian Heritage Association. "Fifty per cent of our kids are not getting through Grade 12 . . . These people don't have a fighting chance against anybody. The cards are stacked against them. Their way out is gangs, their way out is guns, their way out is drugs. With those choices, there is no turning back."
Black-focused schools have been tried in Detroit and Philadelphia, with a similar concept enjoying some success in Canada's aboriginal community, and it's time Ontario gave it a shot, March said. "Let's get our heads out of the sand," he said. "Let's deal with the problem."
But the concept—a school with more black teachers, an exclusively black student body and a greater focus on black heritage—is eliciting strong reaction from many who call it a step in the wrong direction. "I don't think it's a good idea," Premier Dalton McGuinty said Tuesday. "I'm not personally comfortable with that."
Although McGuinty said it's up to the school board to decide at the end of the day, he said students are better off in diverse classrooms, learning side-by-side. "I think our shared responsibility—particularly in this magnificent, diverse society that we enjoy—is to look for ways to bring people together," McGuinty said. "One of the most important ways that we can bring our kids together is through publicly funded education. My preference is that we continue to find ways to bring our kids together."
Others didn't mince words, calling the idea segregationist and dangerous. Toronto school trustee Josh Matlow said the board has seen the dropout rates and heard from black students who feel they are being let down or persecuted by the system. The board could easily offer alternative programs targeted at black students that focus more on their heritage, history and iconic figures as a way of educating and engaging all students, he said. But separating students isn't the answer, Matlow said.
"I think it's a very dangerous direction to go in if we start creating schools based on race," he said. "I don't think that any public building, especially schools, should be anything but welcoming to every single kid in our system."
Harold Brathwaite, former director of the Peel District School Board, said he went through the same debate in the 1980s and the idea was ultimately rejected because there is no evidence to suggest separate black-focused schools work. "My fear is that the best students and the best teachers are not going to apply to go there," said Brathwaite, who is black. "We don't want to ghettoize our students. Unless this is carefully handled, it won't work." While Brathwaite said many black students may struggle and drop out of school, there are "a lot of black students who are successful as well."
Toronto city councillor Michael Thompson said he struggled in school as a youngster but made it through with the help of his mother and teachers. It's clear the school system has to do more to engage young black students, Thompson said.
But setting up separate schools is sending the wrong message, he said. "We talk about this whole distaste that we have for discrimination and segregation and yet we say here is a time when segregation is perfect," Thompson said. "I just don't want to travel down that road."
-with a report from CP