Look at the photograph of Grade 3 boys from David Maxwell Public School on the front page of the June 8 Windsor Star. What do you see? Some rather charming little guys whose teacher, Cathy Boyer, is very proud of them? Or do you see apartheid in education?
In Jan Wong’s recent article in Toronto Life magazine, entitled “Why educational apartheid is not the answer to curbing dropout rates for specific racial and ethnic groups,” she argues that the recent move to create an Afrocentric high school in Toronto is a mistake.
She suggests that supporters for this model of school are effectively turning back the gains made by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. However, she mentions the high provincial standardized (EQAO) test scores for the Grade 3 children in Toronto’s Afrocentric elementary school. She points to the school’s small class sizes and the “obviously engaged parents” as contributing to this success. What is Ms. Wong trying to tell us?
Ms. Boyer, in the Windsor Star article, says she is confident that her class of 17 Grade 3 boys will achieve good results on the EQAO tests taken this year. She believes that having an all-boys class as well as using a curriculum that is sensitive to the needs of each student is responsible for this success.
She describes literacy materials that include graphic novels, sports books and also scary stories written by her boys.
Ms. Wong also speaks to teaching materials. She sees a math lesson where students ex-amine the geometric shape of a classic African Ndebele hut and suggests that “such cultural symbols may hold little significance for a child of, say, third-generation JamaicanCanadians.”
Wouldn’t small classes, individual attention, team learning, sports books, graphic novels, the permission to write scary stories, and even a lesson in the shape of African Ndebele huts enrich all students?
Isn’t there something wrong with a system that doesn’t make this kind of enrichment available to every student in every class?
How do we reconcile this? Isn’t every teacher supposed to be sensitive to the needs of each student? Shouldn’t a multiplicity of resources be available to all learners? But what if some student’s needs conflict with those of others?
What if the need for a minor-ity of students to be integrated into the majority conflicts with their need to feel comfortable by being educated with people who are like them, whether the separation be along lines of gender, race, socio-economic status, sexuality, or any other characteristic that is identified. Should we say no to what Jan Wong sees as “educational apartheid” because we live in a multicultural country where we must all learn to work together?
Should we say that there are some overarching societal values that trump the needs or desires of individuals or should we give parents a choice? The Grade 3 boy, quoted on the front page of The Windsor Star says, “We can learn more because we’re not shy.” But what does this mean? Are all boys shy of girls? And aren’t some children shy of others, no matter what their gender?
What will we say to the Afrocentric school students who tell us they learn better when their fellow students come from similar ethnicities, or that they feel more valued when their culture is given primacy?
Learning is not about gender, race or ethnicity, but about feeling validated as a learner. If we find ourselves examining only one characteristic of each learner, we will be badly misled by what we think we see.
To my mind, the problem is similar to that of food banks. What is a rich country like Canada doing with food banks? Despite the fact that the demand for food banks rises every year, our aim should be to close them all down.
We should be demanding that our governments feed the hungry – just as we should demand that our children’s education meets their individual needs.
But if we close the food banks before we have ensured that everyone has enough to eat, or we remove a variety of choices from our education systems before schools universally adopt truly differentiated education policies, we could be significantly disadvantaging people who have historically suffered that disadvantage for a long time.
No one should have to subsist on a diet of Kraft dinner. And no one should be obliged to send a child to a school that will not meet his or her needs.
Real apartheid did not give people choices.
Danielle McLaughlin is Director of Education, Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust, and 2010-2011 Law Foundation of Ontario Community Leadership in Justice Fellow, Faculty of Education, University of Windor.