The debate over Afrocentric schools in Toronto is raging Wednesday despite a vote the night before by school trustees to approve a controversial step to help struggling black students with alternative education.

By a vote of 11 to nine, school trustees agreed on an "operational model" for a black-focused school.

The school would focus on the experiences and contributions of African people with a goal of discouraging students in the black community from dropping out.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday afternoon, the Toronto District School Board's director of education Gerry Connelly said she is committed to creating a program with an "evidence-based approach" to student success.

"Everybody is asking us how do we know we will be making a difference," she said. "Our commitment is to ensure that we all know that we are making a difference and why we are making a difference.

"We will be reviewing the many proposals received from community members, educators and experts about ways to improve success for the black students," she continued. "In May, we will report back to board of trustees with action plan based on proposals."

Christopher Usih, the board's system superintendent said there will be several next steps in the process to help ensure community involvement and accountability:

  • A survey will be distributed to Toronto public schools for parents so that the board can guage interest in an Afrocentric school
  • Four community forums will be held throughout the city, giving parents and communities a chance to give their feedback on a proposal. These forums will help establish the goal, curriculum and focus of the alternative school. It will also help determine whether the school should target elementary, middle, or secondary school students
  • A community survey to try and determine the best location for the school

'Innovative approach'

John Campbell, chair of the Toronto District School Board said the vote was a step in the right direction to help address the needs of at-risk students.

"It shows we're prepared and willing to be responsive to the needs of the community," he told CTV's Canada AM Wednesday. "The community came forward in a very loud and clear voice and said this is something that they wanted and I'm proud of the board that responded. I think this is a very innovative approach that we're taking."

However, Josh Matlow, a Toronto school trustee, said people in the black community don't just want to learn about cultural experiences but are asking for schools to respond to socio-economic issues such as poverty, nutrition and self-esteem issues.

He said there are other ways to change the system while keeping it all-inclusive.

"I believe we should expand curriculum and programs in all schools that are available to all kids of all backgrounds and colours," he said.

"I think the intentions are correct," he continued. "We need to respond to a serious issue. We need to respond to the drop-out rate in our schools but we need to respond to every single kid no matter what the colour of their skin."

A study done in 2006 found that 40 per cent of black students do not complete high school.

Nonetheless, Matlow said there are other cultures in Toronto who also have a high dropout rate and also need the support.

Campbell said there's still a lot of work to be done.

"I respect the position of the trustees who were opposed to this and they were opposed to it for some very good and very valid reasons but what we heard last night was a willingness on the board to address the issue," he said.

"Setting up one school will not address the issue across a city as broad as Toronto," he added. "We have to put in many other measures in place to make sure kids succeed in schools. This is only one component of that formula."

In total, the board has approved four strategies:

  • Creating a "Program Area Review Team" to recommend the program and operational model for an Afrocentric Alternative School, to open in September 2009;
  • Establishing a pilot program in three existing schools that would integrate the "histories, cultures, experiences and contributions of people of African descent and other racialized groups" into curriculum;
  • Establishing a "Staff Development, Research and Innovation Centre" to assess the best way for improving the success of marginalized and vulnerable students;
  • Drawing up a plan to address underachievement for all marginalized and vulnerable students.