I'll preface this by saying that this is a divisive issue in Toronto, particularly within the black community and the activist community. It's also a rare example of my opinion reversing on a controversial issue within a very short period of time. In August 2007, I thought that black-focused schools were a terrible idea. Five months later, I support the plan, albeit critically. This about-face happened because of a) my experiences at OISE, b) my experiences in an actual Toronto high school, and c) heated debates with people that I respect.
What is the proposal?
First, to my American friends: Please get the image of desegregation busing out of your heads. This is Toronto, not Boston, and our skanky race issues are a bit different than your skanky race issues. It's important to keep this in mind when addressing the segregation argument.
The proposal as it stands is as follows:
• Go ahead with an Africentric school, to open in September 2009.
• Create and use a curriculum that includes the history and culture of blacks, as well as other minority groups, in three existing schools.
• Establish a centre for research and innovation, initially with York University, to look at helping at-risk students.
• Develop an action plan to "address underachievement for all marginalized and vulnerable students" in Toronto public schools.
That's it. It will be a publicly funded alternative school, not a separate system for black students. There are already 36 alternative schools in Toronto, including the Triangle Program, which is queer-focused.
Black kids are currently dropping out of Toronto schools at a rate of 40%.
Why I support the plan
In order to agree that the plan is a good one, one has to accept two things about the Ontario public school system:
1) The Ontario public school system is racist.
2) This racism is a feature, not a bug.
To break it down even further, I will divide the teeming variety of nuanced opinions on the matter into three overgeneralized outlooks: conservative, liberal, and radical. Viewpoints for and against black-focused schools exist in each one of these categories, but for different reasons.
We'll start with the conservatives. They're usually the people who think that the system is fine the way it is, or perhaps it's too leftist and too focused on equity. They'd like history classes to stay Eurocentric, English classes to focus on dead white men, and social studies to extol the virtues of the free market. If black kids are dropping out, it's because black kids are inherently inferior; they come from cultures that do not hold education as a high priority. They are failing on an individual level. They do not agree with point #1 (or if they do, they think it's a good thing.)
If a conservative supports black-focused schools, it's because he doesn't want black kids going to school with his kids.
Next come the liberals. By and large, they agree with point #1 but they can't wrap their minds around point #2. The liberals are the reasons why Africville gets mentioned in Canadian history textbooks and why my own high school textbook had one page per chapter on "The Role of Women." The education system as it stands, though originally set up by racist white men, can be made non-racist by making small adjustments to content (but not to structure). Maybe we can add one page to every textbook on "The Role of Black People," and put up a display for Black History Month in the library. And then we'll all be one happy family.
If a liberal supports black-focused schools, it's because she doesn't want to offend her black friends.
Finally, a proper radical ought to accept points #1 and #2. If you read my posts on education, you should start to see a pattern. If you don't, just keep in mind that white people kept black slaves in Canada and nowhere in Canadian history class is this discussed. Ever. The public school system is racist in structural ways. Radical supporters of black-focused schools realize this, and understand that the only solution is an entirely new curriculum and an entirely different structure.
I hope you're starting to see why I think radicals should support black-focused schools. But if you're not convinced yet, let's look at some well-intentioned objections.
This is segregation!
This is voluntary. Non-black children can attend the proposed school; non-black teachers can teach there. Likewise, black children and teachers can still be at mainstream schools, and most will be.
Toronto schools are already segregated. Most schools in the city fall into one of two categories: vocational and collegiate. University-bound kids go to the latter; kids who will go to community college if they're lucky, but will more likely go straight to work or even drop out before graduating, go to the former. The kids streamed into collegiates are mostly white and East Asian; the kids streamed into vocational schools are mostly black and Latino. (Desis and Middle Easterners go to one or the other along class lines.)
Pop quiz: In which category of school is a history teacher more likely to cover objections to the Great (White) Man Theory of history? In which category of school are discussions likely to be more critical and open?
Rather than segregating black students, black-focused schools will put more of them on an academic track than our present system allows for by teaching courses that speak to their experiences instead of giving up on them and shunting them into non-academic schools.
Well, now won't everyone want their own publicly-funded school?
Yeah, probably. But right now, there are arts-focused schools (I attended one), a queer-focused school (as previously mentioned), French-language schools, and exclusionary Catholic schools. There are girls-only schools and boys-only schools. There is even a girls-only feminist-focused school, though it's private, so beyond the scope of this discussion. So it's not a matter of "why are black people special?" so much as "why do other so-called special interest groups get alternative schools but black people can't have one?"
Oh, and there are white-focused schools, too. All Toronto public schools currently have a white-focused curriculum that celebrates the history, achievement, and aspirations of white people.
Isn't this just a Band-Aid solution? Should any school have a Eurocentric curriculum?
Yes it is a Band-Aid solution, and yes, the whole damned system's got to go.
But see my earlier point regarding whether racism in the public school system is a feature and not a bug. I can argue until the cows come home that the curriculum has to change, that a school system based on a factory model trains children to be mindless servants to the capitalist ruling class, that we need to radically rethink how we do public schools, period. I would like all schools to have good academic programs, and good art programs, and good tech programs, and curriculum that speaks to everyone's experience. (Also Latin; it'd be awesome if schools taught Latin again.) But I'm one hopefully-soon-to-be-teacher and my opinion is in the tiniest of minorities. The curriculum is written by ruling class white men and taught largely by exhausted and heavily constrained middle-class white people. If change to the school system comes, it will come entwined with broader social upheaval.
In the meantime, 40% of black kids are dropping out of school, and it isn't because they're failing. It's because the school system is failing them. This 40% will not grow up to make the social changes we all need because their options are being curtailed. We owe them more. Black-focused schools are an imperfect solution to a complicated problem, but at least it's a start.
So sabotabby, are you going to try to get a job in one?
A girl can dream.
Crossposted to PunkAssBlog.