By Neil Armstrong
PRIDE Contributing Writer
TORONTO, Ontario — A new study, the Africentric Alternative School Research Project: Year 3 (2013-2014) Report, has highlighted some of the successes of the school, in spite of major challenges.
The report has found that the school is “creating a sense of community for Black people in ways that have not been historically present in public schools and resulted in a distinctly different school climate for Black students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members.”
The project is a 3-year partnership (2011-2014) between the Africentric Alternative School (AAS), Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and York University’s Centre for Education and Community (YCEC).
The report found that the Parent and Community Involvement and Engagement (PCIE) model developed at the school emphasized the vital role of both parents and community in the education of Black students, extending beyond participation in school activities and School Council to include the recognition and valuing of the expertise and potential contributions by parents and the community (i.e., members and agencies).
It also notes that the staff have developed a model of inclusivity whereby priority is placed upon working and negotiating through difficult relationships among staff, parents, and community members, rather than seeking to exclude them.
“The model of PCIE, culture of high expectations, integration of Nguzo Saba principles and African-based knowledge and practices, and development of a positive Black identity were framed as overall successes of the school in terms of positively impacting students’ identity, confidence, social development, awareness of African culture, and critical thinking skills,” notes the report.
Dr. Carl James, director of YCEC and principal investigator of the report, hopes the research is continued and maintained.
“Through the research they will be able to also notice and identify the challenges, and make adjustments to the curriculum and school program, with some evidence, and then observe how much that work. There will constantly have to be adjustments because every year the types of students change, the kind of parents change. There will be differences in interests, aspirations and needs and differences in everybody’s expectations,” Dr. James said when asked what he hopes to be the outcome of the report.
The report said a clearly articulated vision of the school, although an ongoing process, is necessary for the school and community to work together, without public misconceptions detracting from the school’s success.
“There were some differences between the vision of the school, as understood by the community in demanding this school, and the existing frameworks the school operates within, as laid out by the TDSB and Ministry of Education. While these differences were respectfully addressed, they frequently inform discussions at meetings and activities involving staff, parents, and community,” the report found.
Yolisa Dalamba, chair of the school’s Parent Council, says the research is now at least one-and-a-half years old since its completion.
“It is the School Council Executive’s position that our school has depreciated in many ways, especially since then,” she said.
“Many parents have been asserting the very issues raised in the research probably since the very beginning of the AAS. The most common phrase I hear about the school across racial, economic, gender lines…”The school was set up to fail.” I’m quite stunned by that and it speaks volumes about the public’s perception of the school.”
Dr. James said, the bone of contention since the release of the report seems to be about leadership on the one hand, and how Afrocentricity is defined and taken up on the other.
“I think one of the controversies and the differences that we see is that no matter what, the understanding of Afrocentricity is going to be taken up differently, based on people’s lenses that they’re using to see what is appropriate and what’s not appropriate. The school is new and it tends, at times, to take some of its ideas from American models. The Toronto Board and others would reference the African-centred schools in the US and some of those become the literature that they refer to, the models that they refer to, the ideas that they’ve taken up. But the Toronto context sometimes is very, very different,” he said noting that no matter how it is developed people are going to find differences with it, given the diversity and complexity to be taken into consideration.
The report also mentioned that there were also issues regarding resources, changing administration, stigma about special education, and negative media attention were laden with challenges and require significant attention from the TDSB to ameliorate the learning experiences of students at the school.
It said teachers remain hopeful that the school board will become more responsive to the needs of the school and the negative effects of under-resourcing on student achievement.
Nadia Hohn, a teacher, said the study highlights some of the successes of the school but also the challenges, and gives a snapshot of the last couple of years.
“Our school is still evolving and developing and it’s going through growing pains,” Hohn said, noting that she is glad the study was done.
The report found that after four years (2009-2012), of the students who started at the AAS, 43% were still attending the school and 57% had transferred to another school inside or outside the TDSB.
Dr. James said the drop in enrolment is not atypical to the Africentric Alternative School.
“Any time you start anything new a lot of people will go on to try it out, and so parents, and students and everybody were trying it out. And after a while you try it out to see if it works, if it doesn’t work, and you can only know if it works if you try it. And therefore, having tried it a number of parents think that its not working for them, or parents have moved from where they used to live and decided that they’re not going to commute or take the child through this long commute; so any number of reasons is possible for that,” he said.
Hohn said in a lot of ways what is happening at the school is also reflective of what is happening in other schools.
“For example, the enrolment is one of those things. The decline in enrolment, the TDSB is facing that in a lot of the schools so that’s not a new thing. In terms of the resources, one of our challenges is to have Afrocentric resources in our classroom. Given it’s a new school, given that this is the first of its kind, we have a wonderful library, we have a lot of African-American types of books and that kind of thing but in terms of text books that meet both the needs of the Ontario curriculum as well as the Afrocentric, that’s been challenging and slow in coming.”
In her first year at the school, she spent about $600 of her own money to put books in her classroom to support the program that she wanted to teach.
“We go that extra mile to make sure that we are bringing the Afrocentric curriculum, we are passionate about the Afrocentric curriculum and that’s why we teach at the school.”
However, Dalamba said since the beginning the AAS has been underfunded and that teachers lack proper textbooks and other important tools, technology and materials to teach effective lessons.
“This has significantly impacted the growth and development of the school and puts a great deal of pressure on individual teachers to be innovative, be willing to go beyond the call of duty and extremely resourceful. Some succeed and some don’t and we cannot afford this. Our school should not be an experiment and lab to test our children on.
“Other schools raise in excess of 45K a year and sadly, parents at the AAS are under more pressure to fundraise but they still have to deal with basic functional and structural issues that don’t exist in other schools. New funding models need to be created that empower schools like ours making resources less of a challenge. Other funding sources and opportunities need to be accessed to support the Parent Council and school programming.”
The report recommends that a clear vision of the school, consistent with the impetus for the school and a critical race (critical equity) perspective, must be articulated, which takes into account structural aspects of anti-black racism and its impacts on Black students’ schooling.
It also calls for the establishment of an ongoing working group consisting of administrators, parents, community members, and academics to examine the points of disjuncture between current models of education and the vision of the AAS, with a view toward determining how these differences may be resolved, and how the AAS program of education can be supported and sustained thereby realizing its transformative potential.
Among its recommendations is to develop a culturally and politically relevant special education support strategy at AAS, and documenting the strategies used by the AAS staff to alleviate the apprehensions of parents about special education in order to provide a model for this intervention across TDSB.
Dr. James said while there might be students that have special education needs that have to be dealt with and addressed, no one should think of the school as a special education school.
“People are always apprehensive, no matter what, every parent, — and these are not just black parents — always apprehensive about sometimes the testing and the examining of their kids, and what these labels might mean for the effective teaching and education of their children.”
Hohn said when the school opened the alternative school model did not accommodate for special education resource teachers and there were children attending the school from various places who needed that support.
They advocated for that and it is now at the school, noted Hohn, who said as teachers they have to be very responsive to the needs of these students.
Regarding the apprehension of parents, Dalamba said special education has been fraught with controversy because of the immeasurable damage it has done.
“Canada’s record with residential schools is horrific and few know that melanated people from the Afrikan continent were also subjected to them in provinces like Nova Scotia. This is still a living memory of how the educational system failed our people far too often so trust is a key factor. Special Ed continues to carry a stigma and there is almost a natural resistance from parents to register their children. The long and tumultuous history of racism in education with streaming, over-policing, ‘dumbing-down’, over-suspensions and more continues to impact programs like this even when they create Gifted streams, which are sometimes used to lull parents into submission for financial gains. Such a program has suddenly been created at our school but already some parents have complained about how it is being introduced, which will potentially undermine the desire to change parents views about Spec Ed,” she said.
She said the School Council was not consulted, which is one of the constant challenges it faces and this perpetuates mistrust from parents.
“Our School Council Executive has consistently advised our administration to use creative methods and pedagogy to address learning gaps, challenges, different learning styles and more through pioneering an alternative program with the same benefits based on Afrikan tools, techniques and technology. If we acknowledge the ways Afrikans have been historically traumatized and misled by many ‘experts’ that would go a long way in getting parents to trust the administration’s recommendations. But parents should challenge these labels and classifications because nobody knows a child better than their parents.”
The chair of the Parent Council said all this is not to say there are no benefits to special education.
“There are, and many parents will attest to that but that is usually because they are informed and monitor it closely to ensure their children get the full benefits and excel as a result but all too often parents have been bullied, intimidated by the experts and professionals who sadly outnumber the parent(s) in these meetings so the intimidation starts almost immediately. As the Parent Council, we offer support to those parents who are unsure or feel intimidated and we advise parents never to attend such meetings alone, be informed and tell them your hopes and expectations. Nobody knows your child better than you.”
The report notes that the YCEC research team, TDSB Equity department and Beginning Teachers Program have begun collaborating on one of the recommendations: to “provide professional development for incoming and in-service staff to ensure alignment with the school’s vision informed by best practices developed at the school and beyond to engage Black students.”
It said that as of September 30, 2012, there were 208 students enrolled in the AAS. The majority of students (93%) were born in Canada, and around 61% speak English at home.
“The AAS is ranked in the top fifth of highly challenged schools. The students from AAS come from more financially challenged neighbourhoods where overall income is fairly low (according to the 2006 Census), where the overall level of adult education is quite low, and where there are more lone-parent families,” the report found.
The 3-year report found that in 2011-12, report card results show that the proportions of students in Grades 1 to 4 achieving levels 3 and 4 in reading, writing, and mathematics are higher than the TDSB. The proportions of students in Grades 5 to 8 achieving levels 3 and 4 are higher than TDSB average in mathematics, and below the overall TDSB averages in reading and writing.
Between 2011-12 and 2012-13, the three-year rolling average of EQAO scores of the school was 4.37%, a much higher rate of improvement than the TDSB (1.54%) and the province (0.88%), even though the results for the AAS were below that of the TDSB and province.
Hohn hopes that there will be a follow-up to the report, since the school is in its seventh year and some of the recommendations might require being investigated further.
Another teacher at the school, BaKari Lindsay, said the Afrocentric education is an intrinsic process of building confidence and desire to succeed despite whatever challenges posed and therefore the report highlights the challenges and success of the Afrocentric school.
Dr. James said there have been significant changes in the administrators at the school.
“Those changes of administration, of course, have had their impact on the leadership of the school and there needs to be that stability. Parents and others need to see that stability is absolutely critical for the effective running of the school,” he said.
The Parent Council has a different view of the reason for the decrease in the enrolment.
“There are many factors for what we are calling a “Mass exodus” because it’s a huge drop in enrolment and a very disturbing pattern we’ve witnessed since Ms. [Thando] Hyman was principal. We have lost some outstanding teachers as a result, we’ve got nearly a total proliferation of split grades, we’ve experience profound political and cultural alienation due to lack of a shared vision and decisive leadership in Africentricity,” Dalamba said.
She said the current principal was a brand new principal when she was sent to the AAS and had no experience, theoretical framework, or pedagogical practice in Africentricity.
“This why we have strayed so far from the promise that was made to the community when this school opened – that we would realize an institution of academic and cultural excellence. These are some of our speculations for the exodus but we are formally planning to conduct research on this to find out the reasons from parents themselves. We encourage them to please contact us so we can start collecting names and will establish a research committee. This research is vital to continuity of our school and addressing systemic barriers.”
One of the biggest obstacles that has worked against the school since its inception is the negative attention from the media, said Dalamba.
“They sensationalized the political controversy playing on misinformed accusations of “segregation.” To date, there is little the media has done to counter this and parents have long felt the TDSB should have embarked on an educational campaign to address this in very creative and exciting ways.”
She said one of the most influential negative stories was from Premier Dalton McGuinty who called the AAS a bad idea and encouraged citizens to inform their trustees and city officials to not support it.
Dalamba hopes Premier Wynne will take a totally different position and that she will “exercise fairness in supporting the recommendations in the report and assist the TDSB in finding the right candidate to lead the board after director, Donna Quan.”
“I would also say the stereotypes are perpetuated if the media only comes to our school when it’s Kwanzaa, Afrikan Liberation Month or MLK Day, or there is perceived conflict and they need visuals of Afrikan people to fill a brief segment. The media has never come out to let’s say an Africentricity debate, our annual fundraising Gala where the executive invited and had an awesome time with MC Bonde from G98.7 or the Afrikan Markets where we promote community businesses or host Oware tournaments.”
Dalamba is inviting the media to some of the school’s events this year and hope they will come out.
“We also have a website we’ve recently revamped where the media can find useful information (we’re still working on it) at www.africentricalternativeschool.com and it’s all done by parent volunteers. Please send invitations to our website or to firstname.lastname@example.org,” she said.