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Africentric school marches to a different beat Add to ...

Portraits of Oprah Winfrey and Nelson Mandela preside over the Grade 1 classroom, the music room is filled with steel drums and the drapes are adorned with bright African fabrics.

Parents, teachers and other proponents are hopeful that these colourful nuances will help engage pupils at the new Africentric Alternative School, which will open its doors to 85 students next week.

The controversial idea was born of an effort to stem the 40-per-cent dropout rate among Toronto's black students.

"People can send their kids to a Jewish school, Italians can send their kids to a Roman Catholic school, so the controversy over a black person sending their kid to a black-focused school … It shouldn't pose a problem," said Winsome Douglas, whose eight-year-old son, Tajay Wallace, will be starting Grade 3 at the Africentric Alternative School. "But as with everything that's new, it's going to cause a controversy."

Tucked into a wing of Sheppard Public School, at Keele Street and Sheppard Avenue, the school will encompass four classes: one kindergarten, a Grade 1, a split Grade 2/3 and a split Grade 4/5 class.

All of the students and teachers are black or biracial. Gone are the dusty portraits of the Queen or Sir John A. Macdonald, who have been replaced by the likes of Martin Luther King and Bob Marley.

"The whole thing is to connect the heritage of the student base with the philosophy of the school and the overall delivery of education," said James Pasternak, the Toronto District School Board trustee who oversees the school. "If there's a disconnect between the students and the curriculum then you have a really tough time engaging them in study, and that's really the philosophy."

Leah Newbold, who will teach French to Grade 4 and 5 pupils and gym to every grade, said that health classes would incorporate both Canada's Food Guide and the Caribbean food guide in an effort to address foods and dishes that are familiar.

Many of the books in the school's library picture black children on their covers. Veronica Sullivan, the librarian, said this will help the pupils identify with the characters in the books and become engaged in reading them.

When asked how lessons would incorporate both Africentric elements and mainstays of the Ontario curriculum, such as Samuel de Champlain, principal Thando Hyman-Aman pointed to the explorer's African translator.

Students will learn about Mathieu Da Costa, a multilingual former slave who is believed to have been one of the first Africans to reach Canada but rarely gets a mention in traditional classrooms.

She also said that the shapes and patterns of traditional African fabrics could be used in basic lessons in algebra and geometry.

"Our children will be learning the Ontario curriculum, that is essentially the same," she said. "But what is different is that we want to make sure that that full story is told, that inclusive story is told."

Classes will start next week and registration remains open. Ms. Hyman-Aman said children have already registered from as far west as Mississauga and Brampton, and as far east as Scarborough.

Ms. Douglas's son was already attending Sheppard Public School and won't have too much of a commute. After a tour of his new school yesterday, the soft-spoken Tajay said he is excited to start classes.

"I'm going to learn about math, reading and playing drums," he said, smiling.

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