Friday, 16 November 2007

Black-focused schools: What do you think?

In response to disproportionately high dropout rates and poor academic performance among black youth, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is debating the idea of piloting an "Afrocentric" school.

My initial reaction is to oppose the plan. This is a serious and complicated problem that the TDSB should be working hard to do something about. But to frame this issue strictly as a failure of the education system somewhat misses the point, as it deflects attention away from the broader social issues at the heart of why so many of these kids do not succeed.

Poverty, stable housing, food security, knowledge of risk behaviours, access to healthcare and key services - the "social determinants" per se, or the indicators of socioeconomic status which are all linked to educational performance by a vast body of evidence. It might not come as a surprise that these are also among the chief determinants of health, as well as crime.

The 13 "priority neighbourhoods" as identified by the City of Toronto and major stakeholders (e.g. United Way) were acknowledged for being grossly underserved urban areas requiring a greater investment of resources. These communities also have a few other things in common, such as:
- High percentage of low income earners
- High percentage of low income single parent families (that single parent is usually a woman)
- Poor access to health and social services
- High rates of Homelessness
- High rates of Type 2 Diabetes
- High rates of Tobacco use
- High rates of school drop out
- High concentration of Afro-Canadian residents

Even if we were to achieve the best and most engaging schools in the world, I am inclined to think the overall improvements would be limited. Unless there is a strong effort underway to address the underlying socioeconomic determinants affecting these communities, too many kids will fail to meet their academic potential and decide that the classroom isn't for them.

Now these are just my early thoughts on the subject based on some reading and experience with underserved youth ... It's a tough issue to be confident with though, and I am still trying to talk it through with anyone I can to help firm up my position. Publicly or privately, I'd love to hear your thoughts if you care to weigh in.
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