If faith-based funding is the third rail of Ontario politics, then this isn't a good time for anyone to be planning a publicly funded separate school.
So perhaps it isn't surprising that the Toronto District School Board's ruminations on creating an Africentric alternative school are kicking up so much dust.
But here we are. Between 40 and 50 per cent of Caribbean-born students (most of them males) are in danger of not finishing school or have already dropped out.
There's a strong feeling among some black leaders that a black- focused learning option is the way to go. Still, it's easy to see that even in that community, it's not a slam dunk.
In fact, ambivalence is on full display at a public meeting at Northview Heights Secondary School on Saturday, December 1.
Planned a year ago as a brainstorming session on upping black student achievement, it comes on the heels of two public meetings specifically on black-focused schools. It also follows a botched board meeting November 28 that had black community members shutting down the proceedings when the issue was not on the agenda as expected.
So the Northview Heights forum, attended by about 100, has an air of redundancy to it. A number of speakers underline this. "Why do we need public meetings when government commissions have already recommended black-focused schools?" says Cecil Peters, a teacher at Rawlinson Community School.
Indeed, this thing has been studied up the wazoo. Two provincial studies in the 90s, one led by Stephen Lewis, urged the creation of some kind of black-focused school.
Ken Jeffers, a senior bureaucrat with the city, sums up the mood when he takes the mic and looks across the stage at board trustees Josh Matlow, Chris Bolton and Michael Coteau, as well as director of ed Gerry Connelly and TDSB exec officer for student and community equity Lloyd McKell.
"Don't put the black community through this humiliation of pleading. This is not segregation. It is an alternative," says Jeffers.
A founder of the Harriet Tubman Community Organization, one of the first black multi-service agencies in T.O., Jeffers then offers us a little- known bit of Toronto history. "In the early 70s there was a black-focused school in the former York Board of Education," he says.
Run out of the Tubman facility in the west end, it was staffed by the York board and operated as a transitional program for newly arrived Grade 8 kids, mostly from Jamaica.
"It was incredibly successful," he says. Three years later the York board pulled the program.
This startling factoid appears to have come from nowhere.
"That's the first time that I've heard that program mentioned publicly," says Trinity-Spadina trustee Bolton. "I don't know why he's waited so long to talk about it."
I know what he means. An example of a successful program could ease a lot of fear and loathing out there. And yet the idea is as controversial within the city's multicultural black community as it is in the general public.
During the lunch break I overhear conversations among black teachers who say they would never, ever send their kids to this kind of school.
"An employer sees that you have good marks, but the minute he finds out you went to the black school, he'll think it was an easier school to do well in," says one. I've been told the same thing by several middle-class black professionals.
Neither trustees Matlow or Bolton are warm to the idea of a straight-up Africentric alternative.
But Bolton relates to the community's angst. "We have more reports and studies on this issue than you can shake a fist at," he says. "The level of frustration because of inaction is coming to a point where something has got to give."
The fracas and the miscommunication at last week's board meeting has Bolton concerned about a special meeting of the board slated for January. The one agenda item will the Africentric proposal.
But no one knows what that proposal will be. And trustees will be expected to debate it with very little prep time, since they likely won't have the documents until shortly before the meeting.
For something this important, the process seems rather confusing and improvised. Sure, this is difficult subject matter. The fact that the problem necessitates this kind of solution is an indictment of the complacency at the TDSB and the province.
That said, the idea of black-focused education raises as many questions as it answers.
Will creating a special school let the board off the hook when it really needs to make fundamental changes? Will it become a dumping ground for the most troubled students? Is an Africentric school more symbol than substance? What about other disenfranchised communities?
No one is saying this is a panacea. But it is a start, something new. Why shouldn't we do it? Just consider what happens if the board turns it down: many will feel vindicated - those of all colours with little sense of the frustration and alienation felt by too many of our fellow citizens.
Dumping the school would be a triumph of the old pull-yourselves-up-by-your-own-bootstraps-think. It assumes everyone has bootstraps. They don't.
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Jeffers on the closing of successful black focused pilot school
Jeffers on how an alternative africentered school fits into an overall positive social structure for black youth
Jeffers on programs that have worked with youth in the justice system
Jeffers on the funding problems for African Canadian groups
Jeffers on the ghettoization of public housing