Toronto's Africentric school draws consistent praise — so why is enrolment flagging?
107 students attend TDSB's Africentric Alternative School, record low in its 10-year life
When the recess bell rings at Toronto's Africentric Alternative School, kindergartners file out of a classroom and past a bulletin board with their latest class project on full display.
In it, the five-year-olds were asked to list and explain, "the best part of me." A quick scan of the board reveals the most common answer, which make up about half of the responses: "I love my hair."
The answer isn't surprising to longtime students at the school, which began accepting applications 10 years ago this month.
"They encourage us to love ourselves," said Grade 8 student Kyeron Banton, who started at the school in September 2009.
"I can walk out, wherever I am, no matter who's around me, confident in my skin and confident in who I am," she added.
'2nd home' to students
The Africentric Alternative School is one of 19 alternative elementary schools run by the Toronto District School Board. It operates in a wing of the Sheppard Public School, but unlike its neighbour, the curriculum includes a focus on the perspectives, experiences and histories of people of African descent.
It is the only public school of its kind in Canada.
During their time at the school, students learn about African contributions to science and mathematics, and the history of black people in Canada.
In the school's hallways, posters of Oscar Peterson, Viola Desmond and Colin Kaepernick dominate the walls. Its music room is filled with dozens of African drums and steel pans, which come alive in a rich medley during music class.
Michelle Hughes, who has sent all three of her children to the school, credits the teachers and curriculum for boosting their self-confidence while making her life easier as well.
Hughes enrolled her oldest daughter in 2009, after she experiencing racist bullying at her previous school.
"One thing I don't have to worry about here is the racism," she said. "That's one less thing off my plate."
Andwele Osbourne James, a boisterous and outgoing Grade 5 student, turns serious when asked about what the school means to him.
"This could be like my second home," he said. "Students around here are really helpful. They might not be my real siblings but they treat me like it."
Enrolment struggling after 10 years
Despite glowing reviews from students, graduates and parents, enrolment at the school appears to be declining as it approaches its 10th anniversary this September.
The school has also been dogged by funding challenges and critiques around its vision and mandate.
For the current year, a record-low 107 students attend the Africentric Alternative School, down from a high of 202 in 2012 and 128 in its inaugural year.
The TDSB says fluctuations in enrolment are common at alternative schools, which can generate buzz in their first few years of existence before interest sometimes tapers off. The board also does not provide busing service to its alternative schools.
Principal Luther Brown, who is entering his second year leading the school, says its mission remains as vital and ambitious as it was 10 years ago.
"A lot of people are afraid of the idea of racism and racists. It is a fact that we live in a society that projects a lot of that," Brown said.
He moves around the school with what might be described as a gentle but unmistakable authority.
"The hope is that [the students] become truly productive citizens who are proud of themselves, who know who they are, who are not afraid to meet the variety of injustices that will come their way," Brown explained.
While the reasons for flagging enrolment are complex, some parents point to the school's location near Downsview Park as a major hurdle for families. Students attend the school from as far away as Pickering and Mississauga.
Go wider with Africentric lessons?
Parent Paul Osbourne, who lives in Scarborough, said other areas in the city would benefit from similar schools.
"It has been a huge barrier for those from around the city that want to access the learning," Osbourne said. "If the model is successful, we should be trying to replicate it in as many spaces and places across the city that we can."
The TDSB says there are no current plans to open more Africentric schools, but people at the school say the school's progressive curriculum could instead be better incorporated across the board.
Doing so could help students of all backgrounds feel represented and included in the classroom, they say.
"It's important, not only black culture, but Indigenous, all the minorities who are not being represented well, they should be learned about so people that come from that can have self-confidence," said Sekou Osbourne James, a graduate who now attends high school in Scarborough.
Over the next 10 years, Brown says he'd like to see more Africentric schools open around the city, along with a transformation of the TDSB's standard curriculum to better account for Toronto's diversity.
At his own school, the goals is to reverse sagging enrolment and have multiple classes at each grade level, and to keep pushing for a more progressive, inclusive learning.
"This could be your lab school, this could be where you test things out," he said.