For most of the last 18 years, the Africentric preschool program in New Glasgow, N.S., has been taught by white staff.
Now, as the program is being incorporated into the province's new pre-primary program, some parents and educators are hoping for change.
The Africentric Four-Plus program started in the late 1990s to prepare four-year-olds for Grade Primary. In class, students learn Africentric history, culture and even Swahili numbering.
The program, run out of New Glasgow Academy, is staffed by one teacher and one educational assistant.
This year, there will be two Africentric pre-primary classrooms at the school. The board is still trying to hire staff for the second class.
Community wants black teachers
Jocelyn Dorrington, who lives in New Glasgow and was an educator for 36 years, said residents would like to see black teachers in the program.
"If there's the opportunity of having the children [taught] in the program with people of African ancestry, that is what the community is hoping for and that was the intent of it," said Dorrington, who recently retired as the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board's co-ordinator of African-Nova Scotian cultural services and diversity.
"Their first foray into education would make an easier transition with someone of African ancestry from the community, or at least who understood the cultural and racial dynamics of African-Nova Scotian communities and history," Dorrington said.
Program had black staff in earlier years
Initially, both the teacher and the educational assistant hired for the first class of 18 students were African-Nova Scotian. But that only lasted for about four years. The African-Nova Scotian teacher got a full-time job in the public school system, and when the black assistant left, a white person was hired for the job.
At that time, "we didn't have another African-Nova Scotian educator who was willing to take the position or graduating from the university willing to come here, " Dorrington said.
A white staff member was hired for the job.
And then the position, formerly a year-to-year contract, was changed. That meant the person's employment would continue from year to year, unless the person chose to leave or there was an issue with their work performance, Dorrington said.
So a white staff member has continued to fill the position.
"Over the last few years, when we did have some African-Nova Scotian educators graduating from the university as elementary teachers, unfortunately, we couldn't … get them hired into the program because the teacher was under contract," Dorrington said.
Established to help reduce inequities
Establishing the Africentric preschool program was one of the recommendations of the 1994 Black Learners Advisory Committee report, which discussed inequities for black students in Nova Scotia's education system. More than 200 children have gone through the program.
Dorrington acknowledged that in some cases, the program leaders are not familiar with Africentricity or the nuances of African-Nova Scotian communities, "so a lot of that gets lost."
"I would certainly endorse having an African-Nova Scotian educator in front of that classroom if the possibility arose," Dorrington said.
"Because I think it's important not only for the African-Nova Scotian children who are in the program, but there are also non-African-Nova Scotian children in the program, and it will be beneficial for them as well to be able to see African-Nova Scotians as leaders in positions of authority in classrooms."
A more welcoming environment
Joy Desmond's daughter, Kieshia, was one of the first students to enrol in the Four-Plus program when it started as a pilot project. She was taught by black staff.
"It was a more welcoming environment," Desmond said. "I feel that they had a better foundation because they felt included … when it was time for them to go off to Grade Primary."
And when Desmond's son, Wayne, went through the program a few years later in 2003, there was a black teacher but a white educational assistant.
Finding out that there are still no black teachers or educational assistants in the classroom did not sit well with some black parents. At a recent community consultation about the program and its incorporation into the province's new pre-primary system, some residents were upset.
"We can sit and teach an Africentric component, but I mean if you don't have the heart coming from an Africentric background, it's not going to be delivered the same way … and I don't believe the children are going to feel as welcome," Desmond said.
'Wanted her to know where she came from'
Russell Borden's oldest daughter, Raelyn, was a student in the program three years ago and his younger daughter, Nyla, is currently enrolled. On top of wanting to make sure Raelyn was ready for Grade Primary, he said he wanted her to know the philosophies around Africentricity.
Borden is African-Nova Scotian and his wife is white. He describes their daughter Raelyn as "blond-haired and blue-eyed," with a "lighter shade" of skin.
"If you look at her, you can't really tell that she's African-Nova Scotian. So I wanted her to know where she (came) from," Borden said.
"For my daughter to go into a class and say that she's African-Nova Scotian but see other African-Nova Scotian children that are there that are a darker complexion than what she is, it was good for her to know that … we come in all different shades. That's something that she learned and that's something that I'm grateful that she did learn."
In a perfect world, there would be an African-Nova Scotian teacher and an African-Nova Scotian educational assistant, said Borden, who is an educational assistant at a different elementary school in Pictou County.
"But, I think … if one is unable to find such a person to do that classroom then it's up to, I guess, the school board to make sure that … a culturally responsive mentor visits that classroom or has personal development days with those teachers to give them ideas on how they could bring the African-Nova Scotia history and culture to the classroom."
Three new positions posted
A spokesperson for the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board acknowledged that "valid concerns were raised" at the community consultation about the lack of staff with African ancestry in the program.
Darcy MacRae said the board has posted positions for two student support workers and one early childhood educator in the program, and it is hoping to recruit three candidates of African ancestry.
MacRae added that during the initial hiring process for the pre-primary programs, applicants were asked to self-identify as being a member of a visible minority, but no candidates did so, "leaving us unable to identify applicants of African ancestry for interviews."
A spokesperson for the Education Department said all the province's pre-primary classes use curriculum that's designed to reflect cultural diversity and heritage.
"Each pre-primary classroom will be staffed with qualified early child-care educators who are versed in culturally responsive pedagogy to promote and support the child's development with a focus on family, community and culture," spokesperson Heather Fairbairn said in an email.