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A Nova Scotia high school plans to offer an Africentric math course to tempt its black students into STEM subjects.
The class at Auburn Drive High School will use “cultural characteristics, lived experiences, and perspectives of African Nova Scotia students as a means to teach.” Unlike the regular math class, it will also be “supplemented with hands-on community-based experiences.”
The theory is that teaching black teens math and other academic subjects within an African framework, such as using Egyptian pyramid measurements to teach trigonometry, will reduce elevated dropout rates among black students by engaging them more than the existing ‘Eurocentric’ curriculum and instilling a sense of ethnic pride.
A few scattered Africentric schools and programs have been in operation around Canada and the U.S. since 2009, though not always with the support of the public. Critics have condemned such programs as an endorsement of segregation while participation has been limited to a minority.
The response of the Black Community
A 2011 proposal to create an Africentric program within an existing high school in Oakwood, Toronto was put on hold after angry protestations from students, parents and the wider black community, who perceived it as segregation. An emotionally charged response and threats to the school led to a public meeting with 6 police officers present.
Students are not only hear [sic] to learn but to interact with each other. It’s not all about academic intelligence, we are also learning social skills. What is the TDSB [Toronto District School Board] trying to teach us by separating the student body? To segregate our community based on our ethnicity?
A 2012 attempt to open an Africentric program at Winston Churchill Collegiate suffered from low enrollment levels of with only six students before eventually drumming up a class worth of students a year later.
Elementary schools have been more popular though not hugely successful. The Africentric Alternative School in Toronto has suffered from falling enrollment and poor test scores, lack of facilities, high leadership turnover and disputes about exactly how Africentric the school should be.
Even students who theoretically favor Africentric schools have shown reluctance to attend one themselves, with some preferring the idea of incorporating more African elements into a mixed curriculum. Masters research at the University of Windsor found that surveyed black teens (admittedly in a small sample size of 10) were worried that attendance at such a school would stigmatize them with the image that they are too stupid to attend a mainstream school and restrict their college opportunities. They also admitted that Afrocentric schooling would do little to solve discrepancies between students of different income levels.
Several students expressed frustration at an educational over-emphasis on slavery and the victimization of blacks, craving a greater positive focus on the achievements of their forebears; something that black advocacy groups could take note of given their constant focus on victimhood.
While students can benefit from learning about the positive aspects of their heritage, a segregated environment will surely condition students to value superficial characteristics such as skin color too highly, at the cost of developing the ability to identify with people of all races. “It’s been an amazing experience to be around other girls with brown eyes and kinky hair, not just blue eyes and blond hair — it makes me feel more at home,” said Grade 8 Africentric Alternative School student Shereka Jeffrey. Is it likely that this child grows up well-adjusted to living in a multiracial society?
Other Factors in Academic Success
A learning environment is created by more than just the content of a curriculum; home life, finances and peer pressure are all factors that affect a student’s ability to succeed at school. One 2017 study found that black male students are less likely to drop out of school when they have one black teacher, especially among low-income students, possibly due to the presence of a positive black role model in a community with a high degree of father absenteeism. With many black students coming from low-income, single-parent households, factors such as poor nutrition, a lack of parental involvement and peer pressure to get involved in criminal activities also contribute to a lack of academic success.
According to the National Education Association, high-poverty schools experience higher turnover rates than low-poverty schools. This results in a higher concentration of inexperienced teachers, as well as a probable atmosphere of inconsistency and uncertainty. Schools such as the Africentric Alternative School actively encourage parental participation in the form of homework help, volunteering in the school, or joining the school council. Students with parents so engaged in their education are likely to have greater success, regardless of the curriculum content.
A Varied and Relevant Curriculum
Apparently objective subjects like math and science are particularly controversial when mentioned in a racial context – does couching these subjects in racial themes make them more accessible to students or just create unnecessary divisions? Math is well recognized as a tricky subject across all races; using examples like Egyptian pyramids to teach trigonometry may engage all students, not just those of African descent. Topics such as apartheid and blood diamonds have been used as classroom examples by teachers in the Africentric Leonard Braithwaite program; surely these topics are interesting and valuable to students of all races and could easily be incorporated into a general curriculum without the need to divide students by ethnicity.
A focus on Africentrism ignores the many cultural differences between Africa and other black regions such as the Caribbean. Moreover, black parents and teachers who have lived in Canada or the U.S. for their whole lives may not have a realistic idea life on the continent of Africa, or of the many and varied cultures that live there. A failed attempt at an Afrocentric school in 1992 California found that black American teens had no easier a time connecting their own lives to the distant lands of historical Africa than a white student does relating to Ancient Rome.
The Auburn Drive High math program is specifically designed for black students; many other Africentric programs are technically open to students of all colors, but when the entire principle is aimed to instill a sense of racial pride, there is little to tempt others to join in. While Africentric schools aren’t exactly taking the education world by storm, they are training children to see the world along racial lines. Separate religious schools have existed for decades, and with Africentric schools now spawning ethnically exclusive suggestions such as a Portuguese school in Canada, where will it end?
* ‘Africentric’ is the term used in Canada while ‘Afrocentric’ is more commonly used in the U.S.