Tuesday, September 20, 2005

What's Going On In The Great White North?

Up in Canada, there seems to be some discussion of the idea of separating inner-city students by race:
A friend of mine spent six months as a student teacher last year at a Toronto inner-city school. The student population in the school, from Junior Kindergarten through to Grade 8, is predominantly black. One of the first pieces of advice her host teacher shared with my friend was not to waste too much time on the Jamaican kids because they'd never amount to anything and most would likely end up in jail anyways.

As for the Somali students, she was told, it was likely "inbreeding" that accounted for their "total lack of intelligence."

My friend hoped these crass sentiments were just the views of this particular individual. But she came to realize there was a pervasive climate within the school that had branded these children as losers. She grew tired of seeing the long line of black boys in the hallway outside one particular classroom where the teacher kicked them out for infractions such as showing up without a pencil.

"Nothing was expected of these children. They were constantly sent the message that, `You can't do anything.' No one seemed to consider that if children are treated like they're dumb and lazy, that is how they're going to act," she says.

It is this experience which made my friend wonder whether a black-focused school might be an option worth trying. "My only concern is, I wouldn't want to see teachers hired for such a school because of the colour of their skin (instead of) the content of their character."

She notes that the school where she was posted had a couple of visible minority teachers on staff. While one tried to be a positive influence in the students' lives, the other shrank into the prevailing atmosphere, anxiously awaiting retirement.

Premier Dalton McGuinty is strongly opposed to the option of black-focused schools, arguing that students should be educated in an inclusive environment that meets the needs of a broad range of children.

In an ideal world, who could argue against this? But we don't live in an ideal world. In this city, there are neighbourhoods and schools where children are being taught by teachers who cannot see beyond their the students' blackness or their poverty. Critics argue that black-focused schools would amount to racial segregation. The very idea makes the liberal-minded cringe.

For a certain generation of black activists and parents who fought hard for integration and inclusion, the proposal seems bewilderingly regressive. I, too, struggle with the concept.

I can vividly recall interviewing Minnijean Brown some 40 years after she and eight other black students desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., under the watchful eye of 1,200 armed U.S. federal soldiers. Many have paid a high price in the name of integration.

But my teacher friend questions whether what she saw wasn't a form of apartheid; children within the public system so marginalized that the education they are receiving is separate — and unequal.

Professor George Dei first sparked the controversy in February when his proposal that a black-focused school be set up as a pilot project was greeted with applause from an audience of frustrated black parents.

Brown told me she wasn't looking to make a political statement in the 1950s; she just wanted a chance at a better quality of education.

Parents advocating for black-focused schools in Toronto now say they are looking for the same because, despite years of studies, reports, commissions and promises, the current system continues to fail their children.

Dei, chair of the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, describes a black-focused school as one where the curriculum and learning environment would be imbued with the history, culture, identity and life experience of blacks throughout the African diaspora.

In other words, students would see themselves reflected in their studies in a relevant and meaningful manner.

It was at university I discovered there was a whole textbook written on the contribution of black Canadian soldiers in World War I. Or that a sizeable community of black settlers were among those who first populated British Columbia.

It is this kind of knowledge that Dei would like to see routinely imparted to black children in grade school, at a time in their lives when they are trying to make sense of the world and their place in it.

Dei argues that such a school would benefit those students who are most at risk of failure.

But he sees a black-focused school as needing a cross-section of children, including those who are excelling, to serve as role models for those who are struggling.

Would it be the answer for all black students? No. Could white students who wish attend the school? Although it would be predominantly black, Dei argues that white students who wish to be part of the environment should be welcomed at such a school.

He also hopes that successes and best practices of a pilot school would be transferred back and incorporated into the mainstream system.

"If a black-focused school succeeded, it would put pressure on the mainstream schools to change," Dei says.

I am uncertain of how Dei's vision would play out in reality. I am disturbed that it is even necessary to be having this debate in Toronto in 2005.

But I am even more distressed at the prospect of a generation of lost black kids.

Enough to overcome my squeamishness and ask: Can black-focused schools make a difference?

Perhaps it's time we found out.
I really don't think that separating students by race is the answer. In fact, such a policy would be a great disservice to the students as this approach would do little to prepare kids to function in a multi-racial world. What is needed isn't separating kids by race, but separating those students who disrupt the educational process from those kids who are in school to learn.
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