Board does the right thing and votes for black-focused school
When the “s word,” segregation, gets uttered again, there’s an audible groan from those sitting around me.
I’ve ducked out to the overflow section at TDSB headquarters on north Yonge Tuesday night, and am watching the debate leading up to the board’s historic vote on creating the first Africentric school in Toronto on closed-circuit TV.
About 70 others are here, too, and the main chamber’s jammed to the rafters. They’re all black. I’m the only white, and I find myself wondering how many of those whacking this issue with the “s’’ word ever actually mix with those not of their own kind.
The folks here – young parents with little kids, students, elders, professionals, punks – have been waiting for three hours. They’re good at waiting. I’ve seen many of them before at different public meetings in the north end. Waiting. Waiting for the city, the province or in this case the school board to finally listen.
Their patience is humbling. What many (not all, for sure, but many) have been saying is that an Africentric school is part of what they desperately need if they have any hope of rescuing their mostly male at-risk youth.
What they’ve been calling for and what’s on offer tonight is not a school open only to blacks. It’s an alternative school with an Africentric focus open to all students. When the trustees finally vote 11-to-9 in its favour, the delight and joy on the faces around me is well worth the hike up to Mel Lastman Square (a place I go only when sent).
It isn’t all warm and fuzzy, however. Some trustees vote in favour of the school despite being worried about the fine-tuned details. A teary-eyed Sheila Cary-Meagher (Beaches-East York) says she feels she has to vote yes even though “these motions are really too big and mushy.”
Stephnie Payne (York West) and John Hastings (Etobicoke North) vote against the school although it’s wide-ly thought it should be situated in one of their north-end wards.
And right near the end of the debate, a procedural shemozzle almost scuppers the whole thing when the proposal’s most vocal opponent, Josh Matlow (St. Paul’s), tries to get the motions deferred until the budget committee takes a closer look at the final bill.
Before the meeting, Matlow, who has been campaigning for months against the black school concept, tells me, “We don’t believe children should be divided by race even if it’s done with the best intentions.’’
At the meeting he warns, “We are already in a deficit position, and we may be authorizing something illegal,” he says to groans from the closed-circuit seats.
But while tonight isn’t about the bean counters or policy details – it’s about finally giving a positive signal to this beleaguered community – there are many concerns, and money is one of them. The total cost of the four-part plan is pegged at $820,000: $350,000 for planning of the school; $450,000 for a three-year Africentred curriculum pilot project to run in a few schools; $15,000 for a research centre to assess best practices for boosting at-risk youth’s school achievement; and $5,000 for an action plan addressing student underachievement. (The last one seems utterly bizarre, since the board has been studying and action-planning student underachievement for years.)
Black Action Defence Committee éminence grise Dudley Laws tells me in the hallway after the vote that the heavy lifting begins now. “We have a lot of work to do with the board now in ironing out the details. But I am quite happy. This is a victory.”
The celebration is getting louder as the nearly 200 people start filing out of the trustees chamber into the hall. It’s a bit of a wild scene. Payne, one of only two black trustees on the board, blasts through the crowd to cries of “Stephnie Payne, you should be ashamed of yourself.”
As she bolts for the elevator, she tells me, “I have two adult children who are both working, and they didn’t need this kind of thing. These kids need parental involvement, not just a lot of talk.’’
Standing a few feet from Laws is Ryerson student Karlina Mahmoud. “I am distressed right now,” she says. “There is a lot of talk about Africentred education, but I don’t see my community reflected in this.” Mahmoud, who is from Sudan, says the emphasis on American symbols, Martin Luther King, the Underground Railroad and hiphop leaves out the communities of continental Africa.
“Not one person who spoke tonight brought up the issue that these kids have no fathers and that it is real-ly the men who have failed the black community,” she says. Her opposition to the school draws her into a wrangle with Laws and other school supporters.
It’s a rich moment, the old guard facing off against the new, one of many that make this a night we should be proud of and thankful for.
Not because a problem has been solved (who knows? it may just create others), but because through patience, perseverance and pain, the black community is still willing to engage with a system that has never really listened to it. Until now.
Angela Wilson co spearheaded the initiative to set up an africentric alternative school
Courtney Betty says the TDSB is setting the black community up to fail with the same blue print as the First Nations school
Donna Harrow co spearheaded the initiative to set up an africentric alternative school
Loreen Small is the mother of Jordan Manners who was shot to death in at CW Jeffries Highschool. She says a black focused school is segregation