Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Black History School

Last night the Toronto school board approved plans to create a new "afrocentric" school within the public system. It was a close vote, preceded by a lot of thoughtful debate in the black community and in Toronto generally.

Some of the advocates and commentators keep talking about a school in which young black Torontonians will learn the history and culture of Africa and the African diaspora -- and be empowered. That's an argument that reminds me of the notion if we just taught more Canadian history to the kids in school, we could Save The Country.

I favour teaching Canadian history in schools; I favour teaching black history too. But I don't think history alone will save the country or save black Toronto either.

You know, lots of kids are just not hugely interested in history when they are kids. For many people, history is an adult interest, discovered when they are adults. I suspect that many young black kids in the highrises or townhouses around Toronto would not get a lifechanging experience from being immersed in the history of the kings of ancient Zimbabwe or trade union activism in Jamaica or the underground railroad. Many of them have no more engagement with that material than their white counterparts may have with the United Empire Loyalists or Prairie dustbowl life. For a lot of kids, and adults too, today's crucial history and culture is post-1990; it's right around them. Sell the school on history, and you have may have a hard sell engaging the students it's intended for.

The basis for afrocentric schools: it's reported that right now 40% of black students do not graduate. Black achievement, black success, black economic progress is what Toronto's black community, and Toronto itself, urgently need. Academic success is what this school should aim for. When kids are coming out of Afrocentric High with great marks, great report cards, and great scholarships, then it's working. If an Afrocentric school can create conditions in which black students can thrive, succeed, be stimulated, and go on to great things, then I'm all for it.

That can happen. The great success of all the alternative and specialty schools that Toronto already has come not so much from their various curriculums. It is how they give students a sense of belonging. Just by applying, just by being accepted, just by being placed in a like-minded group of students and teachers, students know they are not just being warehoused in the local school. They have exercised a choice, and with choice comes allegiance. It even works for kids who chose not to go specialty. Because they could have, they too know their own local school is a choice they made.

An Afrocentric school, well planned, can foster that. And if there are kids in it who want to immerse themselves in black history and culture, good on 'em. But the school itself should judge itself on how it fosters academic achievement.
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