Africentric school outcomes hindered by unclear vision, limited resources: report

The city's Africentric Alternative School, one of the Toronto District School Board's most "highly challenged schools," fares well compared to similar schools, according to a new report, despite the fact that its success is hobbled by an unclear vision and lack of Africentric curriculum resources.

Toronto’s first Africentric Alternative School does create a 'sense of community' for black students

A new report suggests that resource and other challenges are inhibiting success at Toronto's first Africentric school. (Canadian Press)

The city's Africentric Alternative School, one of the Toronto District School Board's most "highly challenged schools," fares well compared to similar schools, concludes a new report, despite being hampered by an unclear vision and lack of Africentric curriculum resources.

The report was issued Thursday afternoon by the Africentric Alternative School Research Project, a three-year collaboration between the school, the Toronto District School Board and York University's Centre of Education & Community. The document covers year three of the project, and includes the research team's overall findings.

'You can become something'

The report found the school creates a sense of community for black students in ways that traditional public schools have not.

The students agree.

"Usually you see people with blue eyes and blonde hair, and I come to school with kinky hair and brown eyes," Grade 8 student Shareeka Jeffrey told CBC News. "It's amazing to be there because I see students like myself."

Students also like learning about black role models, which is something they might not get elsewhere.

"They'll turn around and tell you about somebody that started off just like you and became something, and then they'll always say you can become something," Grade 7 student Sekou Osbourne-James said.

Grade 8 student Shareeka Jeffrey said it's great to come to school and see other kids who look like her. (CBC)

But the report also acknowledges the struggles the school is facing. 

It ranks in the top fifth of "highly challenged schools" in the TDSB, the report said.

Students at the school hail from more financially challenged neighbourhoods "where overall income is fairly low ... where the overall level of adult education is quite low, and where there are more lone-parent families."

Despite these factors, the AAS is faring better in achievement than other schools with similar challenges, the report said.

When looking at report card results from 2011-2012, the report found:

  • The proportions of students in Grades 1 to 4 who achieved levels 3 (the provincial standard) and 4 in reading, writing and mathematics were higher than the TDSB average.
  • The proportions of students in Grades 5 to 8 achieving levels 3 and 4 were higher than the TDSB average in mathematics, but lower than the TDSB averages in reading and writing.
  • Between 2011-12 and 2012-13, the three-year rolling average of EQAO (standard provincial test) scores from the school was 4.3 per cent, which showed a higher rate of improvement than the TDSB (1.54 per cent) and the province (0.88 per cent), although results for the school were below those from the board and the province.

The school opened at Keele Street and Sheppard Avenue West in 2009 in an attempt to reduce dropout rates and improve an achievement gap among the city's black students. While the school is open to students of all backgrounds, many of the teachers are black to serve as role models for students.

At the time, supporters of the concept said it was important for children to understand their personal history and to address the 40 per cent dropout rate, while opponents said the school smacked of segregation.

 'I want him to go there'

The report found that in 2012, four years after the school opened, only 43 per cent of students who started at the AAS and had not reached graduate age were still enrolled, while 57 per cent had transferred to another school either inside or outside the TDSB.

But parents told CBC News that's probably because it's the only school like it in the region, and students come from far and wide.

"There are people who come from Scarborough, Brampton," Elaine Ewers-Baptiste, whose son Tejean travels from Mississauga to attend the school, said. "It's far, but I want him to go there."

The AAS research project's goals included assessing how the school is fulfilling its mandate to create an African-centred community and place of learning, to document successes, to identify education-related best practices, and to follow students' academic achievement.

Overall, the project concluded that the school has created "a sense of community for black people in ways that have not been historically present in public schools and resulted in a distinctly different school climate for black students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members."

However, the report also identified "differences" between the original idea of the school "and the existing frameworks the school operates within," as well as funding challenges that are a "limiting factor to the school's success." 

Jacqueline Spence, superintendent of the Africentric Alternative School in Toronto, says the school board committed to making the school work. (CBC)

The superintendent, also a former principal at the school, says the board is committed to making the school work 

"We continue to reach out to the community and things will evolve, because it's new, This school hasn't been around that long," Jacqueline Spence said. 

Before the report was made public, TDSB spokesperson Shari Schwartz-Maltz told CBC News that the funding concerns likely pertain to a lack of resources to develop Africentric-focused curriculum materials that are also in line with provincial education guidelines.

"It's a work in progress," she said of the curriculum, "which cannot be expected to be overhauled overnight."

This year, the focus at the school is on giving the teachers more opportunity for professional development, she said.

The report included eight recommendations, including establishing a clear vision for the school; developing curriculum that both fulfills that vision and meets current education models; continuing to foster parental and community engagement in student success; and developing culturally relevant special education supports.

With files from Lorenda Reddekopp