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Issue of focus schools not black and white

by Archives October 5, 2005

TORONTO (CUP) –The idea of creating black-focus public secondary schools as a possible solution to comparatively high drop-out rates among black youth is nothing new, but the issue has resurfaced over the past few months as university educators have begun to voice their support of the initiative.

Toronto School Board’s new equity officer, Lloyd McKell, started the most recent debate when he suggested black-focus schools should be created in Toronto and has received little support from the provincial government.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty immediately spoke out against having black-focus schools, stating he personally has not seen evidence that it would help “improve learning for black students”, but students and educators think it may help reduce drop-out rates amongst black youth.

Burt McGuinty faces some stiff opposition, especially from some university professors.

George Dei, researcher on black education for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said black students are disengaged from the current public education system and black-focus schools are an option not to be ignored.

“It’s a different way of looking at the school system … we have to address the problem that students feel about the alienation and disengagement. These issues have been put in the closet [for] far too long and we should not put the options under the table,” said Dei.

Dei went on to say problems of discrimination and differential treatment black students experience in the public school system become discouraging barriers for learning.

Other faculty members agree.

Paul Axelrod, Dean of Education at York University believes it’s time alternatives should seriously looked at.

“I understand the concerns people have of schooling that looks like segregation, but we have a variety of specialized kinds of programs in the school now for aboriginal, gifted and arts students, and I think in that context this is something worth looking at more closely,” he said.

“I don’t think that this is a magical solution to challenges faced by kids in the community and we have to approach the whole question of education changing within the public system as well as alternative choices for the students in the public system,” he added.

Dei also said that the focus schools will work like the Catholic system, but instead of religion, aspects of culture, history and identity will be examined.

“The school would have a focus of academic excellence as well as critically looking at the complexities of black culture – the diaspora in specific. By examining this, the students will be able to start with the framing of their identity,” he added.

Future educators like Pierrette Walker agree with Dei.

“The Catholic system is there to highlight a need not tended to by the public school system,” said Pierrette Walker, black caucus director of York University Black Student Alliance and third-year history and education major.

Walker said it is important to acknowledge and learn about the contributions black people have made in the community and to educate others further so stereotypes are not perpetuated.

“The purpose is to address the needs of the community and to provide extra-curricular and academic support for students to help motivate them to pursue post-secondary education,” said Walker.

Despite criticisms of segregation, Dei contested that “the school is fundamentally based for academic excellence”, and that if the initiative succeeds or fails, it is not a reflection of the school, but of society.

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