At first glance you wouldn't think this converted bungalow in Rexdale could really be a school. But here at the Umoja Learning Circle on Islington, educator Anyika Tafari's ingenious use of every square inch has turned her dream of giving black kids an Afrocentric education into a reality.
With 16 students from kindergarten to grade 5, the learning hive features a mix of West African spiritual traditions, Caribbean agricultural practices, lefty environmentalism and the tunes of Bob Marley.
After wrestling off my winter boots, I'm ushered into the main-floor classroom. It's warmly decorated, full of greenery, sun spilling in through easterly windows overlooking a stretch of urban forest that leads down to the Humber River.
African symbols adorn the walls, each with an English translation pointing to the proud history of Africa and the importance of self-esteem and self-respect. Mornings here begin with a drumming affirmation circle, and today that's followed by music class. Tafari leads me through the warren-like building toward the music room, through the kitchen where every day she cooks a vegan meal using herbs and vegetables grown by the students.
"This is going to sound strange, but the favourite foods around here are broccoli and spinach,' she laughs. We pass the computer room, with its dozen donated Macs and PCs. And through the science room, Tafari's pride and joy. The school has a strong ecological vision, has an agricultural program, plants trees with the Conservation Authority and runs a recycling centre.
In the classroom are aquariums and an extensive grow lab that produces many of the aromatic herbs and spices used in the meals. "We also try to grow some plants native to the Caribbean,' she says, pointing out a small date palm and a tamarind tree. "The entire Ministry of Education science curriculum is contained in this one room,' she says proudly not an insignifcant point, because the school adheres to ministry guidelines.
Tafari is aware that some disdain her vision. "I have been told I'm practising segregation here,' she says. "The school is African-centred, but it is open to anyone. For me, it isn' t segregation, but a chance to learn how to be firm and strong in who you are and to learn from our African heritage.'
I can see how any child could benefit from this learning environment. It feels like many of the alternative schools scattered throughout the city's public system. Unfortunately, though, Umoja isn't tax-funded. Nope, it's a private school whose fees range from $6,000 to $7,000 a year.
After the decimation of education in the Harris years, I understand why some parents who can afford to opt for private schools. Still, I imagine every time a kid leaves the public system, a little victory bell goes off in cold neo-con hearts.
Prof George Dei, chair of OISE's sociology and equity studies department and a long-time advocate of the black-focused school concept, thinks the crisis facing black students needs to be addressed in the public system. "If you believe that we are a community, you don't just say, "Tough luck' to the kids who are falling behind. We have to hold the system responsible.'
That is essentially what the Ontario government's Royal Commission on Learning concluded back in 1995 when it recommended a school for black students as one way to address the achievement gap. Twelve years later, that gap is a gaping hole.
The Toronto District School Board's (TDSB) most recent stats show that fully 52 per cent of Caribbean-born grade 10 students are at risk of not graduating up from 36 per cent when the commission wrote its report. That's twice the rate for Canadian-born students. Add to that the toxic ingredient of gun violence and it's easy to grasp the demand for African-Canadian-focused education.
Dei tells me he's excited by a new initiative, but that it's too early to talk about it. School board officials, however, spill the beans. It may be a little late, but it seems the TDSB has finally been listening. No, we won't see a Martin Luther King Academy any time soon. Instead, the board is now moving to implement a black-focused curriculum for all students at Brookview Middle School in the heart of the Jane and Finch area.
Underlining the possible controversy surrounding such a plan, folks at the board are tight-lipped about the details. "We want to make sure all of our i's are dotted and t's crossed before we go public with this,' says Vernon Farrell, chair of the Africentric advisory committee that is overseeing the project. Currently, the board is piloting units in math, social sciences, science and music, with the full curriculum coming next September.
"We are trying to create a classroom where students see themselves represented in the lessons,' says Lloyd McKell, TDSB's executive officer for student and community equity.
In fact, McKell is no fan of building an alternative board school for black students. "I hope we can make progress on inclusive schools and classrooms so we don't get to that point,' he says.
Brookview's demographics make it the perfect petri dish. About half the students are of African heritage, and 53 per cent have a language other than English as their mother tongue.
"We don't have a school that is 100 per cent African heritage, so it is a challenge to ensure that there are cross-cultural connections,' says McKell. "Everything of relevance to one group is potentially relevant to other groups. We want Sri Lankan students to come in and talk about the music they're into as well as focusing on figures like Martin Luther King.'
Supporters of a black focus say there has been a lot of misinformation about the concept. "People say we're advocating going back to the days of segregation and separation, but that's not the case at all. Those systems were set up to oppress,' says Dei. "We have all-girls schools, faith-based schools, boys' study groups, but when it comes to black schools there is a double standard.'
Kirk Mark, chair of the Canadian Alliance of Black Educators, ardently supports the direction the TDSB is taking. "This is really positive,' he says. As an example of the kind of teaching Brookview students will see, Mark says Egypt's pyramids could be used as examples in a math problem. "It boosts self-respect. We call it Afrocentric, but it's really global-centric.'
When I finally make my way into the basement of Umoja, six students are furiously working through a percussive version of Chamillionaire's Ridin Dirty with surprising rhythmic accuracy. They switch up instruments for some laid-back Bob Marley.
Tafari, clearly proud of her proteges, says, "At Umoja we want these kids to feel they can be productive, articulate and part of the solution, not the problem." And part of the solution may finally take root at Brookview Middle School, too.