Why are we still talking about Africentric schools?

Why aren’t we doing something to try to change decades of data — “comparative drop-out rates, school suspension rates, graduation rates, academic averages achieved” — that show African Nova Scotian students aren’t reaching their potential in our school system? Whatever the reasons, it’s time to stop allowing the failures of the past to keep repeating themselves.

Wade Smith. Photo: Facebook

“And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen”

—John Prine

It’s April 2006. The African Nova Scotian Advisory Committee has just released a new report criticizing the Halifax Regional School Board for “failing to adequately address the challenges faced by African Nova Scotian learners, citing as evidence ‘comparative drop-out rates, school suspension rates, graduation rates, academic averages achieved’ and the less tangible but no less important ‘feelings of alienation’ felt by both black students and their parents.”

A reporter asks Wade Smith, then a prominent black educator and vice principal of St. Patrick’s High School, for his reaction.

“Maybe it’s time for a change,” he suggests thoughtfully. “Maybe we need to look at an all-black school or other alternatives… something other cultures are doing when they come to Nova Scotia. They have economic independence, they care for their culture, they invest in it, it enhances students as they go through life. It allows them to keep connected, but also go through the mainstream education system… It’s something that we need to be thinking about if we’re truly thinking about doing what’s best for our kids.”

Reaction from whites is swift and uniformly negative. As compiled by journalist Carsten Knox in The Coast:

Barry Barnet, the white cabinet minister for African Nova Scotia Affairs, said he didn’t think “a segregated school” was necessarily the solution to the problems Smith was trying to address.

The most prominent media opponents of the idea suggested separating white and black learners was itself racist and counter-productive, especially after the long struggle to integrate Nova Scotia’s education system. Editorials suggesting an all-black school would be tantamount to a return to those days ran with headlines such as “A Step Back?”.

Posts in local online discussion groups were more scathing, branding Smith’s suggestions “ignorant.” But it got worse. An American white supremacist site picked up the story and used it to garner support for segregating black students.

Alex J. Walling’s commentary on halifaxlive.com was entitled “No, No, No to Black Schools,” in which he dismissed the findings of the BLAC report, suggesting the real problem is a lack of cultural assimilation into society, and wondered, “if we ever get to a black school, what’s next? A black Wal-Mart? A black Tim’s?”

Flash forward 14 years. Much has changed. Wade Smith, who went on to become principal at the new Citadel High School, is dead, long before his time. St. Pat’s High has been demolished, the property on which it stood now just a grassy, waiting-for-a-developer field.

But much else has not changed. The issues raised in the 2006 African Nova Scotian Advisory Committee Report — those “comparative drop-out rates, school suspension rates, graduation rates, academic averages achieved” not to forget “feelings of alienation” felt by black students and their parents — haven’t magically disappeared.

And then let’s flash back more than 25 years. It’s worth noting that that 2006 report was actually an update on a 2002 report card, which was itself a revisit of the seminal 1994 Black Learners’ Advisory Committee report that recommended, among other ideas, an Afrocentric Learning Institute in Nova Scotia “to assist in curriculum development and conduct ongoing research on issues impacting Black Learners in Nova Scotia.”

Wendie Poitras (The Coast)

Which brings us to the “news-just-repeats-itself” now of African Heritage Month 2020. And to a powerful “Opinionated” column in The Coast last week entitled: “Building a Case for an Africentric School.”

Like Wade Smith, Wendie Poitras is a black educator who grew up in north-end Halifax. As a student, she didn’t experience a single black teacher “until my master’s degree.” During her 16-year career as a teacher in schools around HRM, “I’ve been the sole or one of two black teachers in the schools I’ve worked in. These things matter.”

Citing many of the same sad learning outcomes noted by all those other reports over all those other many years, Poitras argues:

There are techniques, methodologies and ways of knowing and learning that students of African descent prefer in contrast to the standard Eurocentric model of education present in most institutions in Nova Scotia. This is where I believe African Nova Scotian students would benefit from attending an Africentric school where content, resources and pedagogy all come together to provide the very best education to a body of students who have been let down by past and current systems of education.

Poitras makes the case that an Africentric school (perhaps the biggest actual change since 1994 is that we having moved from calling the concept Afrocentric to Africentric) wouldn’t just support black students academically but also cater to their cultural needs as well.

While such schools already exist for Mi’kmaq and Acadian students, Poitras says whenever someone suggests a similar approach for African Nova Scotian students “it becomes a threat to those unwilling to let go of their power in order to welcome an opportunity to close the achievement gap.”

And she does see it as Africentric education as a real opportunity. She writes:

Imagine the impact of having Black teachers and administrators providing mentorship and leadership to Black students. Imagine this in combination with adequate facilities and resources. Imagine the power of a teaching complement that doesn’t require any professional development on “culturally relevant pedagogy” (the new catchphrase in education) because these educators are already part of the community in which they teach. This is invaluable. There would be no need to hire specialists from outside the community to advise how best to teach their children. This, along with state-of-the-art facilities, could provide students with an environment that would assist in levelling the playing field.

The question for us is this. Will we finally welcome an opportunity to try something that could close the achievement gap between black and white students? Or will this news just repeat itself 25 years from now?

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner February 10, 2020.

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