One black school is not a cure-all – comment – One black school is not a cure-all
January 31, 2008

The Toronto public school board’s controversial decision to open the first black-focused school in Canada should not be used as an excuse to ignore the racial problems across the whole school system. After all, only a small percentage of the black students in Toronto will be able to attend the one experimental school that is to be set up.

“We have to be very careful we don’t say `Okay, we’ve dealt with this problem,'” says Ben Levin, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and a former deputy education minister.

To its credit, the school board has recognized this pitfall and has supported system-wide proposals to help all black students do better as well as the creation of a black-focused school.

Earlier efforts have been made in this direction, of course – notably in the wake of the Yonge St. riot in 1992, on which Stephen Lewis reported for the NDP government of the day.

Following up on Lewis’s report, the Ministry of Education under the NDP introduced anti-racism policies that included appointing the first assistant deputy minister in charge of the issue, training for all ministry staff, developing a new curriculum and forming school-community partnerships. But in 1995, the Conservative government of Mike Harris quashed those efforts. Many feel that with those policies in place, there would be no call today for a black-focused school.

Questions remain about the experimental school, including how the board will pay the estimated $350,000 start-up cost. Still to be determined are the location of the school and whether it is to be an elementary or high school. And the board has to recruit staff and administrators and develop a black-focused curriculum for the school – all by September 2009. That’s a lot to accomplish in a relatively short time.

Once open, the main challenge facing the school will be to combine a high level of support for vulnerable students with expectations for academic success, a difficult balance. Simply creating a comfortable environment for students is not enough. The school has to demonstrate that it can lower a high-school dropout rate among Caribbean-born students that currently stands at 40 per cent and strongly involve the community in making sure students succeed.

The school has to be monitored closely from the beginning to see what works and what is failing. Where successful, that model could be expanded to other schools and other marginalized groups.

But racial problems in the school system are not limited to Toronto. To address this issue province-wide, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government should consider reinstating many of the anti-racism policies that were scrapped in the mid-1990s to ensure all black students in the province have an equal chance at success.

At the end of the day, successfully integrating and educating all students is the key to multiculturalism and a tolerant society.

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