The fall term is weeks away, but Kyeron Banton is already thinking about delving into school books to get a jump-start on Grade 9.
“If you don’t do any work, your brain kind of shuts down and then when school starts you don’t remember anything,” says the recent graduate of the Africentric Alternative School, which celebrated its 10th anniversary at a gala last month.
Kyeron, 13, was among the first cohort at the school to complete junior kindergarten through Grade 8, and credits her time there with instilling a strong work ethic.
“Your skin has nothing to do with what’s in your head and has nothing to do with why you can’t be great,” she says. “All of us can be excellent.”
That’s the message behind Canada’s only Africentric school, located on Sheppard Ave. W. near Keele St., nestled amidst rental buildings in a racially diverse working class neighbourhood in the city’s northwest.
“It’s always been a safe spot,” says Kyeron. “People can be their authentic selves, because they’re not being scared that they’re going to be stereotyped as loud or ghetto or stupid … I know who I am. I’ve built up my character over these years. I know history.”
The elementary school, which opened in 2009 to better support and engage Black students, is vital, say parents and educators. Children see themselves reflected in the curriculum and its leadership. It promotes positive Black identity and there’s a strong sense of community.
“Belonging matters, especially for racialized students … (that) is huge to ensuring that they are successful,” says Toronto District School Board Superintendent Audley Salmon, who represents the school and calls it a success. “That is one thing we have certainly learned from the Africentric (school).”
But that success has been hard won and it could be said to be tempered by ongoing challenges. There’s no school bus service, test scores are shaky and enrolment is declining. Supporters of the school say it must be better resourced to continue building on its vision.
The TDSB, the country’s largest and most diverse school board, has 582 schools, serving 246,000 students — 11 per cent of whom are Black.
Statistics show Black students have historically performed below average. They’re more likely to be labelled with special education needs, suspended and expelled, and streamed into programs that don’t lead to university or college.
In fact, efforts had been made to address the issue for decades, including a short-lived Afro-Caribbean alternative high school that operated in the mid-1980s, and a 1995 Royal Commission Report on Learning that recommended Black-focused schools. The idea sparked controversy; some called it segregation, others said it was needed to tackle the 40 per cent dropout rate amongst Toronto’s Black youth. By the mid-2000s, that idea remained divisive, even amongst members of the Black community, however the board voted in 2008 to move ahead with a small innovative school.
The Africentric school opened for students in junior kindergarten to Grade 5 in September 2009, and that fall, 128 kids from across the GTA enrolled.
They share a building, and some spaces, with Sheppard Public School. The library seems divided by an imaginary line: On one side is a poster of Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews, while on the other is a poster of South Africa’s late president Nelson Mandela. One side is filled with typical children’s books, while the other is clearly focused on the Black experience.
Hallways are adorned with images of the Underground Railroad, of Halifax’s Africville and trailblazers such as Canada’s first Black citizenship judge Stanley Grizzle and first Black Governor General Michaëlle Jean.
School days start like most others, with children singing ‘O Canada.’ But twice a week, there’s also an assembly, where they sing the Black National Anthem — James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — and recite The School Pledge, promising to be “focused, self-disciplined and ready to learn.”
Teachers, most of whom are Black, incorporate Black history, experiences and contributions into the curriculum. Their role was examined in a recent report co-authored by York University professor Carl James, who holds the Jean Augustine chair in Education, Community and Diaspora.
“Where student potential has been unrecognized, these teachers nurture it,” according to the May article, published in the journal Curriculum Inquiry. “Where Blackness has been negated, these teachers supplant anti-Blackness with pro-Blackness.”
Staff look to best practices in the United States, where Black-focused schools are a success and there’s been extensive research done. The school also shares what it’s doing. Educators from the Durham District School Board and Halifax’s Africentric-focused Delmore ‘Buddy’ Daye Learning Institute have visited.
Many students, most of whom are Black, start in kindergarten, enrolled by parents supportive of the school’s vision. And some join in later grades — the school now goes to Grade 8 — looking for a better fit, sometimes after experiencing racism, bullying and behavioural issues at other schools.
Principal Luther Brown, who retired in June after more than two years at the school, says staff work hard to prepare students for life and improve attitudes about school — and parent feedback has been positive.
Paul Osbourne has been involved with the Africentric school since Day One — his two younger children attend and two older ones are graduates. Growing up in Toronto, he never had a Black teacher, and never learned the accomplishments of historical and contemporary Black figures, noting, “We didn’t see examples that would inspire us.”
Osbourne, a social worker, wanted something different for his kids. He wanted them in a space where their values and customs were shared and they would feel comfortable having dreads, wearing an African shirt and eating Caribbean foods, such as curry goat.
He says good relationships between staff and parents, who have historically felt disenfranchised, make the school “more than just brick and mortar.”
“If a young person wants the help they will get the help,” he says, adding there’s a “family approach” at the school he hasn’t experienced elsewhere. “With teachers, it’s not just about the academics … It’s more of a mentor relationship.”
The sentiment is shared by recent graduate Jesse Mark, 13, who attended from junior kindergarten to Grade 8. Raised by a single mother, he says strong male role models in his teachers were crucial
“It turned me into the person I am,” says the teen. “You can’t find a better community than (this school).”
There’s no Africentric high school for grads such as Jesse. While there was talk of creating one, the TDSB settled on Africentric programs at Winston Churchill Collegiate Institute in the east end and Downsview Secondary School in the west. Jesse, who’s keen on athletics, will go to James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School in September. He wants to attend university, after which he dreams of playing professional basketball or becoming a mechanical engineer.
“We have a job of making this school be on the map,” he says.
But the school doesn’t appeal to all, even Black families in the neighbourhood. Sharri Chin, sends her boys — one is going into Grade 3 and another junior kindergarten — to Sheppard Public School. She also plans to send her toddler there.
“I just want my kids to be with everyone,” says Chin. “There’s no reason for our kids to be segregated. We live in Canada, in Toronto, it’s diverse, it’s multicultural.”
She’s heard good things about the Africentric school. That there are teachers who may be better at addressing the needs of Black students and community issues, and that its standardized test scores, done by the province’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) have, for the most part, been higher than Sheppard’s. But, it boils down to “personal preference.”
In its first years, the school built on strong test results, which measure reading, writing and math skills in Grades 3 and 6. In 2012-13, most results were far above the board average: Amongst third graders, 86 per cent met provincial standards in reading and math, and 93 per cent in writing. And amongst sixth graders, 79 per cent were reading, 93 per cent writing and 57 per cent doing math at those standards. Each of those grades had 14 students.
Similarly, enrolment during those early years grew, reaching a high of 188 students in 2012-13, according to TDSB figures calculated mid-year. But in 2013-14, test results tumbled far below average — for example, Grade 3 math scores dropped to 33 per cent. And enrolment fell and continued to decline — last year there were 106 students and the same number is projected for September.
When asked about the downward trends, some community members seem reluctant to be critical of the school, which opened to great fanfare, attracting committed parents with bright kids. But there have been setbacks: Some parents pulled their kids out. Some were disappointed that more programming and resources had never materialized. Others were tired of long commutes because there is no school bus service. And some were frustrated over parental disputes about what an Africentric curriculum should look like. Plus, there has been a high turnover rate amongst the school’s principals, which meant they had to start from scratch on building up relationships with students and parents.
Although enrolment is at its lowest with 106 students, Brown notes the numbers are on par with alternative schools. Still, he’d like to see enrolment grow, “with the appropriate kinds of resources,” including teaching assistants for literacy, numeracy and social skills.
In a small school, a few academically weak, or strong, students can skew statistics. Brown says EQAO scores aren’t where they’d like them to be, but are improving. The most recent figures available show 2016-17 scores still below board average but appear to be on the rise. Grade 3 results, for example, jumped between 10 and 20 per cent from the previous year. But Grade 6 scores aren’t as clear because results from the previous year aren’t public due to low class size.
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“There was a turbulent time, but we’ve come through the storm,” says Osbourne, who’s also chair of the parent council. “Now, there’s an upswing, in terms of academics, parents and community members are more engaged, the student-teacher relationship is a lot better and leadership has been strong in the last couple of years.”
Professor James, who led a three-year research study between York University, the TDSB and the nascent school that culminated in a 2015 report, says when assessing the school, it’s important to look beyond EQAO scores.
“We must use other measures, especially when the idea for establishing the school is based on addressing the educational needs of students, taking into account their cultural and social backgrounds,” James told the Star. “There is certainly an irony assessing the students using such a tool when we are trying to be culturally responsive to their learning.”
Brown agrees: “We also have to look at how are students feeling and behaving, and what’s the climate in the school … These are all measures that are hard to quantify, but are important.”
Parent Jessica Vorstermans has been awed by what daughter Saskia is learning. She comes home from school talking about everything from civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. to issues such as shadism. Saskia is 4.
“She’s like ‘Black is beautiful. All shades of Black are beautiful,’” says Vorstermans. “That’s amazing that she’s having access to that in junior kindergarten.”
Teachers in other schools may talk about these issues, but at the Africentric school “it’s a guarantee,” she says. It was important to send her mixed-race daughter to a school where she can access a piece of her identity she wouldn’t get at a regular school, and intends to send her toddler there too.
“We feel so lucky that our daughters are able to learn, grow and thrive in a school community that honours them as beautiful Black children who are going to make big changes in our world,” says Vorstermans, an assistant professor at York University.
Plus, they’re “living in a world with a lot of anti-Black racism” and will be “equipped to meet that.”
That’s a key goal of the school, explains Brown.
“It is a space where students are better able to understand themselves within the context of racism and, therefore, be better able to move around in that environment in a safe way,” he says. “In spite of the pressure that will come — economic or social — they can still be resilient, to the point where they can become whatever it is they want.”
Former student Kemora Manning, at 15, has already faced some of those pressures head-on.
“I can be anything I set my mind to,” says Kemora, who dreams of being a politician. She credits the Africentric school with broadening her definition of being Black, given the negative stereotypes of Black culture that abound in media and on TV. Learning about the Black community’s challenges and accomplishments fuelled her with “a positive pressure to do my best … to carry the torch and continue to represent my community in a positive light.”
Kemora left the school after Grade 6 to attend a gifted program in Grades 7 and 8, and now goes to Etobicoke School of the Arts, where she’ll be starting Grade 11. She says going to schools where she was among the minority as a Black student was “kind of jarring” because of the racism and ignorance she encountered. In the gifted program, one student likened her complexion to cow manure and another told her to get over slavery. And in high school, she’s met students, including Black kids, who have never heard of apartheid, and are surprised she doesn’t “act Black.”
While those situations can leave her feeling like, “It’s me against the world,” Kemora always talks it out with her peers about what it means to be Black. And she’s got the facts to back up her arguments.
Her mother Debby Ennis, who spent part of her childhood in Jamaica, never learned about Black history and culture the way her daughter has. Ennis, who’s an early childhood educator, has five children, but only her youngest — Kemora and Trevon — attended the Africentric school. She says they have a much stronger “knowledge of self” and deeper connection to the Black community compared with their siblings who went to regular schools.
When it comes to the key issue the school set out to tackle — the high dropout rate of Black teens — Principal Brown notes, “One school won’t solve the problem — it’s a systemic problem that has to be addressed in a broader context.”
According to the TDSB, there have been improvements. The board no longer tracks dropout rates, because many students eventually return to school. Rather, it tracks high school graduation rates of students over a five-year period. When you look at grad rates in recent decades, the fastest improving group were those who identified as Black, especially females.
The five-year graduation rate for Black students in 1992 was 44 per cent, meaning the remainder dropped out, switched school boards or took longer to get their diploma. By comparison, the average overall graduation rate was 56 per cent. By 2016, the graduation rate for Black students was 78 per cent, compared with an 84 per cent overall average. This 34-percentage-point increase represents the largest graduation rate increase for any racial group. And by gender, 88 per cent of Black females graduated, compared with 71 per cent of Black males.
But, when you look at a range of other TDSB data — things such as school readiness in kindergarten, attendance rates, grades, suspensions and credit accumulation in Grade 9 — Black students are either the lowest-performing or in the bottom three with Latin American and Middle Eastern students.
“There are a lot of kids out there who aren’t seeing themselves in the day-to-day instruction taking place and that’s a huge challenge,” Superintendent Salmon told the Star, adding he believes the TDSB has learned from the Africentric school on how to better meet the needs of racialized students. For instance, providing professional development for educators who serve predominantly non-white communities. He suggests the TDSB’s work at creating a more inclusive learning environment across the board could explain why parents are keeping their kids in neighbourhood schools, rather than enrolling them in the Africentric school.
But for some, the Africentric school continues to have a strong appeal — despite the fact there’s no busing, which makes the commute a challenge. Osbourne, who lives in Scarborough, spends about an hour in morning traffic driving his children, Andwele and Abeni, to the Africentric school. They then spend up to 90 minutes taking the TTC home. It’s tiring, but the kids are committed, he says.
Osbourne has long advocated for another Africentric grade school in the city’s east end. He, and other parents, have submitted a proposal to the TDSB, met with a trustee and spoken with administrators at Winston Churchill Collegiate Institute about establishing a feeder school for its Africentric program. But they’ve been unsuccessful.
University of Toronto professor George Dei, an early proponent of the Africentric school, says “equity costs money.” He says more resources are needed at the school — including transportation, curriculum materials, computers and more staffing. Even its own separate building — so it doesn’t have to share spaces like the library, computer lab and gym — is important, because “otherwise people see it as being secondary or second class.”
“You cannot treat an Africentric school like any other alternative school because it’s intended to address a problem, and therefore it calls for more resources directly to the school. It calls for different responses,” says Dei, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, whose research includes anti-racism education. “Groups that have historically been disadvantaged demand targeted responses.”
Salmon says the board would like to provide more resources to all of its schools, but has limited funds.
Reflecting on the last decade, Dei says there have been successes and challenges, “We must learn from both.”
“We are a long way from realizing the dreams of an Africentric school,” said Dei. “We need to attract multiple solutions to the question of Black education. The Africentric school is not a panacea, but at least it is something to think about. It cannot be taken out of the equation.”
His comments are echoed, in part, by Professor James. He says the TDSB needs to determine the kinds of supports necessary beyond basic staffing requirements. The school has attracted students of all academic backgrounds, including those with special needs, but hasn’t had the appropriate supports, he says.
“I’m not sure that we can say that (the school) has made the impact that we all looked forward to,” says James, noting it didn’t have “the kind of infrastructures to really accomplish as much as it would have wanted.”
The first decade was “a good start that we need to build on,” adds James.
Kyeron, the recent grad, sees a bright future for herself. She says her teachers boosted her confidence and taught her to persevere, qualities that will guide her when she goes to Earl Haig Secondary School for the Claude Watson Arts Program, and eventually university, where she plans to study law.
“They’re going to really judge how we turn out in life based on where we got our education for the first 10 years,” she says. “We’re going to make them very proud.”
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74