- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2008

TORONTO — Toronto’s school board is expected to vote over harsh opposition tomorrow to approve Canada’s first “Afro-centered” high school, which likely would open next year.

Black parents have been central in pushing for the institution, which is touted as a solution to dropout rates that range between 25 percent and 40 percent among Toronto’s black students, many of whom are of Caribbean heritage.

Critics have reacted viscerally, calling the plan a step toward the sort of segregation that once troubled U.S. schools but has seldom been an issue in Canada.

“The majority of Torontonians are against it,” said school trustee Michael Coteau, who added that he had never seen such a strong reaction.

Many of his constituents have condemned the idea, he said, but “when there were reports of skyrocketing dropout rates among black students, no one called.”



Since 1991, studies have shown dropout rates of more than 40 percent among the city’s black Caribbean students, and of 25 percent to 30 percent among the children of recent immigrants from Africa. This compares with rates of 25 percent among white students and 18 percent for Asians.

One of the strongest advocates of the school is Donna Harrow, one of two black women who approached the school board in 2003 to petition for an alternative, special-needs school.

Toronto has schools for other “at-risk” student groups, including homosexuals and American Indians. The United States has a few schools specifically for blacks, including in Cleveland and Milwaukee.

Mrs. Harrow said the Canadian press had wrongly presented the project as a form of segregation, or suggested that students who attend would be seen as unable to survive in the real world.

“Any student — whether white, black or Chinese — who wants to celebrate the unity of people as part of being prepared for postsecondary education and opportunity is welcome,” she said.

After months of study and community input, the school board released a 156-page report recommending the creation of one alternative school for 150 to 200 students, along with black-focused streams in three other schools at a total cost of about $800,000.

Despite the public opposition, the measure is expected to be approved when the board votes tomorrow. Although the school would be open to all students, it is not clear how many non-blacks would apply.

Trustee Josh Matlow opposes the plan. He fears the school for black children will start a domino effect that will splinter the city’s 558 public schools into ethnic and racial educational ghettos.

“It’s a Pandora’s box,” he said, while quoting Martin Luther King’s dream of all-inclusiveness.

Even if the black-focused school doesn’t fracture the school system, Mr. Matlow said, its success cannot be measured until “after my lifetime.”

Three private schools in Toronto serve black students up to the sixth grade. Zakiya Tafaria, who teaches at the Umoja Learning Circle, said that in the 12 years since the school’s inception, 90 percent of its graduates have been put forward a grade when evaluated for admittance to mainstream middle schools.

Mr. Tafaria called the alternative school a good idea, but warned that many families will not want to participate if it is placed in an area stigmatized as a black crime zone.

Education in Canada is a provincial responsibility, and the country’s early schools often were segregated by law. In the 1800s, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario schools were established to segregate black students. In Nova Scotia, the last separate school for blacks closed in 1986, said Angela Wilson, who joined Mrs. Harrow in pushing for the Toronto school.

During slavery in the United States, public schools were integrated in Toronto, but many Ontario communities enforced segregated education. In 1853, Ontario’s chief justice ruled that no matter how poor the quality of the school, blacks must attend.

Yet during this same period, William Hubbard, the son of refugee slaves and a graduate of the city’s integrated schools, was elected to 14 consecutive terms as a Toronto alderman and served as acting mayor.

The proposed school will teach the basic Ontario curriculum along with some black history that is not taught in mainstream schools, Miss Wilson said. It also will provide a culturally sensitive environment where teachers don’t react with hostility to black students who use slang or wear dreadlocks.

Miss Wilson said her teenage son and daughter attend mainstream schools but they understand the need for this alternative. “This is about choice,” she said.

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