Professor George Dei says parents of black children have been concerned for 30 years that the Toronto school system is not serving their children. “It was time to try a new approach.”
Professor George Dei is the immediate past chair of the department of sociology and equity studies at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. He was in Ghana this past summer conducting research into indigenous philosophies of education. He recently spoke with Scott Anderson about Toronto’s first Africentric school, which opened this September.
What is an Africentric school? The Africentric Alternative School is not only for black students. While concerns about the problems of black youth in the education system propelled the school’s creation, it is defined by its principles rather than by who goes there or who teaches there. The current school system looks at the world through European eyes. We’re talking about looking at the world through the eyes of African peoples – their experiences, their cultural knowledge and their history.
Africentric education sees schooling as a community endeavour, which means that parents, students, administrators, educators and governments share in the responsibility to ensure success. In the existing system, students are treated as individual learners. We want them to see themselves as a community of learners with a responsibility to those who are struggling. We want the A students to assist those who are not doing as well.
How will the school’s curriculum differ? The Africentric paradigm provides a space for African peoples to interpret their experiences on their own terms rather than through a Eurocentric lens. Of course, students need to know about European history. But they also must understand that African history is central to the construction of European history. You cannot present world history in a way that leaves out a group of people or says that their history doesn’t matter. Cry Freedom is about a white man who fights apartheid. Maybe he did, but what were the Africans doing? Were they just standing there watching him fight? Or were they central to the story?
I can see how subjects such as history and English can be taught with an African point of view. What about math? There’s a whole literature on ethno-mathematics and indigenous conceptions of science and mathematics. To use just one example, look at the textile patterns used by African peoples. What are their conceptions of geometry? You’d still teach students geometry as we know it. But you allow for multiple ways of knowing.
What has research indicated about the performance of black students who attend an Africentric school versus those who attend a regular public school? Black students at Africentric schools perform better on tests, skip class less often, show greater respect for authority and elders, report feeling a greater sense of belonging in their schools, and have a greater commitment to social responsibility and community welfare.
Do a greater percentage finish high school? We need more research on that question – which is another reason why we need this school.
If Africentric schools are seen as a solution, what are they a solution to? High dropout rates, low motivation, teachers’ low expectations of some students, stereotyping of black, religious minority and working-class students, a lack of respect for authority and a lack of student commitment to community.
Are there other possible solutions? Definitely. Africentric schools are not a panacea. We need to continue to ask all schools to be more inclusive.
What evidence do we have that Toronto schools are poorly serving black learners? A 1993 report on the old Toronto school board found that the graduation rates for black students was 44 per cent and the dropout rate 42 per cent. Comparable figures for white students were 59 per cent and 31 per cent. This appalling situation is no different today.
Would resources be better directed at solving the problems in all schools rather than creating a separate school? It cannot be an “either/or” solution. It has to be “and/with.” In 1979, I attended a meeting of the Organization of Parents of Black Children in Toronto. The parents were speaking about the school system failing their children. In 2009, parents are still talking about this. It was time to try a new approach.