Black-focus school debate arrives in Montreal

By Jessica Murphy on June 12, 2008

The black-focus school debate that created a stir in Ontario last year has made its way to Montreal.

In May, the English Montreal School Board held a series of public hearings on focus schools. For the EMSB, it’s part of an effort to stem falling enrolment and school closures. “We’re just trying to have a menu where people can select options based on their particular tastes. A focus school is just an accommodation of the regular curriculum - plus,” said commission chair Syd Wise. But along with recommendations for schools with an arts, science, or sports focus came proposals for heritage focus schools: Jewish, Italian, and Black.

For the black community, the school is, in part, a reaction to the higher than average high school dropout rates seen among black students.

“What we are asking for is a school that has some concern for the history of the black community, which is also oriented to working with families and getting families engaged. To respect the curriculum, but bring some additions to it to create a greater sense of value for those who participate in the system,” said Dan Philips, president of the Black Coalition of Quebec.

The current curriculum is Eurocentric, he contends, and excludes much of the student population. “It leaves room for nothing else. And when people feel they are outside of anything, they are less likely to contribute to its advancement and development” he said. “(An Afrocentric curriculum) would make these students feel they are part of the whole system, it would give them a sense of pride. It would show that the people involved have a concern in their advancement.”

Danielle Landry, coordinator for the Third Avenue Resource Centre, a social justice organization that lobbies for increased parental involvement in the school system, agreed some students are marginalized. “Research has proven that there are practices that are discriminatory toward some students,” she said. “One of the things we can see is the attitude towards certain groups—but it’s very subtle—as subtle as a teacher having less faith in your abilities.”

But the solution, she said, is to increase the role of parents in schools. “If parents are in schools, they’ll help change those negative perceptions. And there’s a large percentage of success related to the participation of parents.”

Philips agreed.

“An Afrocentric school must also take that into consideration. It should also get parents involved. It would also attract parents who I see working eight-to-five and don’t have the flexibility. You have to be flexible to meet the needs of these parents as well.

“We don’t say it’s a panacea. We say there must be some kind of thing we can do to show the system there needs to be changes (in order to offer) a better education,” he said. “It’s is a question of that 48 per cent and more who feel they are not part of the system. The system does not cater to them.”

But the Black community is not united behind the idea of an Afrocentric school.

“It does not matter what school the child is attending,” said Dr. Clarence Bayne, president of the Black Studies Center of Montreal. “The problem has to do with the early development of the child for which the school is only partially responsible.

“I think we have a responsibility to shape the society that we are a part of, not stand outside of it as if we have no power to alter and reshape it. Our very existence and location as breathing decision-making beings represent a measure of power. The system is organized to take this into account. Consistent collective action has effect. The school system is a part of our responsibility.”

Landry also felt that the solutions should not be divisive. “The question of inequality needs to be looked at globally. If it’s the project of one lobby group, it means they’re only concerned with their own interests. It doesn’t address the inequality within the system.”

Dr. Phil Abrami, director for the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance, also expressed concern that black-focus schools were a band-aid solution.

“There are many reasons children drop out of school and I think it’s fair to say some of those are beyond the purview of education to deal with,” he said. “It’s a very difficult and intractable problem. I don’t think the answer is a simple one. There’s a lot to be said for people with role models like themselves, but there’s a lot to be said for integration.” He did not support the idea on a personal level, he noted. “It sends out the wrong message. If you want to change the curriculum, change the curriculum. Don’t change the people who are sitting in the classroom.”


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