A desperate situation requires drastic measures. That, it seems, is what pushed 22 black organizations into the political limelight last week with their well-honed emergency action plan for youth.
Among other items, the coalition composed of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, Black Action Defence Committee, Jamaican Canadian Association and others called for a separate black court diversion program and economic development agency and black-focused schools.
This latter proposal has been floating around for some time.
As a high school teacher, I've given it a lot of thought, and it seems to me that, rather than pushing for these schools in the plural, we really only need one.
One fully funded place of learning, adequately supported, with a full complement of a youth workers, social workers and educational assistants, to serve as an inspiration for change.
Such a school would have enough black teachers to constitute a critical mass, as well as black administrators, guidance counsellors and at-risk-students' monitors. It would have to be ready to deal not just with formal equity, but also substantive equity.
While formal equity concentrates on the future, substantive equity recognizes the future is based on the past. If that means compensating by over-focusing on black history and black issues and becoming over-vigilant on issues of bias in the curriculum in the short term, so be it.
A school like this would be open to black students of all abilities, preferably from grades six to 12. It's well known that informal streaming starts when children enter school.
Therefore, it's better if they're monitored from an earlier age rather than in grade nine, by which time they may have an insurmountable academic and critical-thinking deficit inflicted on them by the system.
Other than benefiting its students, the school's main goal would be to serve as a lab for innovation in all-inclusive curriculum, equitable hiring, teaching and disciplining strategies, and collaboration with parents based on respect for their cultures.
If the political climate were hospitable, changes developed in a black-focused school would then flow into the educational system as a whole. One item that would certainly need a hard look is curriculum-based inequity.
For example, in grade 11 throughout Ontario, world history to the 16th century is taught. This is the kind of course that could easily be made all-inclusive, yet it remains Eurocentric at most schools.
Eurocentricism is maintained in at least three ways: by omission, misrepresentation and expropriation.
It's hard to know exactly how many history teachers spend most of the year teaching ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and medieval Europe, omitting the rest of the world, but I would imagine it's a substantial number.
Ancient Egyptian history is taught as if it Egypt were not an African civilization. Pharaohs are given European names. Khufu, the builder of the greatest pyramid, is renamed Cheops. Amenhotep, the primary contributor of modern thought and originator of monotheism, was renamed by Eurocetricists Amenophis the Sun God after Louis the XIV the Sun King.
Apparently the message is an African cannot not be greater.
At the University of Toronto, where my own children are students, ancient Egyptian history is taught as part of a patched-up department called Near and Middle Eastern civilizations.
At U of T, a department is dedicated to teaching the history of a reconstructed region, but there's no department for the study of Africa and the African diaspora, only African studies programs. If school boards follow the example of universities, how can high schools do any better?
How do we redress the imbalance? First of all, place ancient Egypt where it belongs, solidly in Africa.
Nothing can hide the fact that those who built the pyramids, and survived long after, came from the Sahara Desert (current-day Chad, Niger and Mali) after it started drying up around 9,000 BC.
The way Egypt is taught, Africa is denied its history and diversity by all three means: omission, misrepresentation and expropriation. This is what I tell my students when I teach this course.
Students in a black-focused school have to be taught a reconstituted world history. And similarly, biases in all other courses have to be examined and corrected, not just in languages, social sciences and humanities but also in sciences and math. That means, recognizing the historical achievements of blacks typically overlooked in these areas.
And black students have to find mirrors to bolster their growing personalities. Racial minority teachers, particularly blacks, few as they are, are the last to be considered for the plum jobs in schools, administrative posts or positions as guidance counsellors or special ed monitors.
Where I teach downtown, the team of 16 curriculum leaders and assistant curriculum leaders has a gender and racial mix of seven white women, seven white men, one Chinese man and one black woman.
This in a city where roughly 50 per cent of the population are non-white. Today the children of the latest immigrant groups from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda and other African countries face the same problems of inappropriate streaming as did Caribbean immigrants in the 60s and 70s.
Other schools I am familiar with are in a similar quandary. What does it mean to minority students when they never see themselves reflected in the staff around them? This major imbalance has been the subject of 30 years of idle talk. Proposals for a black-focused school are the first real chance to address it.