As a young person, I watched the Walter Cronkite, and saw the footage of black students escorted by police into a white high school. Desegregation came to the south, with dogs, billy-clubs, and more than a little upheaval. What drove the changes? The belief that all people should be treated the same way. All people should have the same rights. Differentiating between people on the basis of their skin was wrong.
In Toronto, a social experiment reverses all of that, and calls it into question. In January 2008 the Toronto School Board voted to open the city's first Afrocentric public school. In September 2009, after much concern, the school opened with 85 students. Enrollment had been slow, and the members of the community had gone out to pump it up to that number.
Today, the school has reached its capacity of 128 students and has more clamouring to get in. From an acceptance viewpoint within the black community, the school has succeeded. Now it remains to see if it can achieve its goal.
Why was this school started? The school board had a problem. According to its own statistics 40% of black youth did not graduate from high school, in contrast to a board wide level of 25%. The advocates of the Afrocentric proposal believed that this was caused by the "eurocentric" system failing black students.
In the end the school was approved because of this problem. Sheila Ward (the representative for Toronto Centre-Rosedale) said it this way. "I don't know if an Afrocentric school is the answer…. [It] is not about segregation or integration, it's about student success."
Time will tell, but it will take years. Will a school of black teachers, with black students succeed? Will adding to the standard curriculum, information about Africans of note, and the history of Africa help? Will African centred cuisine, and dress help?
I feel certain that the students in this school will prosper. They have proud, caring parents who have gone an extra step to provide their children with a special education. However they are a drop in the bucket. Toronto's population as of 2006 was 8.6% black (209,000). Even if this school reduces the drop out rate for its students to zero, it won't impact the board wide statistics.
So, while the benefit to those students is great, the benefit to society (in this case the black community within Toronto, which is larger than the population of some Caribbean nations) is nominal. What about the costs? I'm not talking about dollars, but about values.
The black population of Toronto is anything but homogenous. They have come from Jamaica, Trinidad, Belize, Ghana, Somalia and a host of other countries. Some are evangelical Christian, other are Moslem. Some wear corn rows, others wear the hijab. Some have roots in Canada that go back fifty or more years. Others are new immigrants.
Yet, this school does see them as the same, on the basis of skin color. This makes as much sense as server spaghetti and calling it French cuisine, because France shares a border with Italy.