The trouble with 'afro-centric' schools

Last night, the Toronto District School Board narrowly approved a proposal to develop an 'afro-centric' school in the city. I can't help but think this a bad idea. And I know I tread on the thinnest of ice here--as a (some would say painfully) white male who grew up in small towns, the experience of black urban youth is pretty far removed from my reality. Even so, I think we have the potential to do some real harm to these kids with a well-meaning but ultimately ill-conceived plan. No doubt, the motivations for the scheme are above reproach. With a drop-out rate of nearly 40 per cent among afro-carribean males, Toronto's high schools are clearly failing a significant proportion of its students. For the supporters of the afro-centric school, the best way to address this challenge is to create a school that embrace "the sources and knowledge and experiences of peoples of African descent as an integral feature of the teaching and learning environment".  It's a nice idea. Unfortunately, it talks past the real problems at hand.

If we're serious about encouraging African-Canadian students to complete high school and move on to postsecondary education--whether university, college or vocational training--we need to understand the reasons why they drop-out in the first place. Just about every study on educational achievement demonstrates that the single biggest determinant of whether and individual will complete high school and go on to higher education is whether their parents did. Or, more abstractly, whether their parents value academic success and encourage their children to succeed. This emphasis on learning is intrinsically tied up in questions of poverty, and in communities where overall academic attainment is low, the tendency is for this characteristic to repeat itself across generations. The idea that low educational attainment is simply a result of bad schools is simplistic at best. It's not that the school system doesn't 'get' African Canadian students. It's that African-Canadian students come from a complex socio-economic background that acts as a barrier to academic achievement. Increasing high school completion rates and getting more kids into higher education has to be approached holistically, far beyond the borders of a high school. It involves financial assistance, mentoring, and an effort to correct the poverty issues that plague these communities. A great example of a program doing exactly that is Regent Park's Pathways to Education. Their work is community based, targets a variety of barriers in innovative ways, and is startlingly effective.

I also have a hard time accepting that there is something intrinsically different about how African-Canadians learn that places them at a disadvantage in secondary school. There are definitely variations in how individuals learn, but to suggest differences apply to an entire group reeks of the kind of essentialist thinking folks in the African-Canadian have spent years fighting. If there is a pedagogical failing in Toronto's high schools, is that they are not particularly flexible in program delivery, and may over-privilege certain types of educational outcomes--university attendance, for example--over pathways that may work better for some students, like vocational training or apprenticeship. But again, there is likely no pedagogical model that is superior for African-Canadian students. There are models that work better for different types of learners, and these categories cut across ethnic and socio-economic lines. The challenge is creating greater flexibility within High Schools, not replicating the current model within an 'afro-centric' context.

The thing that rankles me most about the new afro-centric school experiment is what it implies about our ability to live together in a culturally and ethnically diverse community. The underlying assumption behind the afro-centric school model is that there is no way anyone can understand the needs and values of another cultural group, so there's no point even trying. It's not segregationist per se, but it reflects a sort of gated mentality ultimately harmful to the students it is attempting to help.

Urban planning provides a useful analogy for understanding why this kind of thinking doesn't translate into effective solutions. For many years, the building of 'projects'--large, subsidized housing complexes for low-income earners--was a popular part of urban design. Unfortunately, it just didn't work. Crime, drug abuse and social disintegration were the unfortunate results. The evidence powerfully suggests that mixed-use and mixed-income neighbourhoods are much more effective ways of organizing our communities. We're currently spending millions to re-configure Regent Park, once a bastion of the 'project' mentality, along these lines. So why are we in such a hurry to create an educational equivalent?

Of course, I may be wrong. An afro-centric school could well be the silver bullet that solves the problems of Toronto's troubled neighbourhoods. However, at this point, it seems like another good-intentioned idea based on a flawed understanding of the problem. Moreover, it is underpinned by simplistic, essentialist logic that has damaged many communities before. We're all in this together. Instead of putting up more walls, let's create a secondary school system in Toronto that works for everybody, all the time.