One of Canada's first Africentric high-school programs will open its doors for the first time this fall in Toronto, with more than a dozen students planning to attend. So far, none of them come from the Africentric grade school.
Jacqueline Spence, principal of the Africentric Alternative School, said she is not concerned that her first graduating class of Grade 8s – 13 graduates in total – will not necessarily be making the transition to the Africentric high school. Students are still deciding where they want to attend high school, and may be unwilling to make the commute from the north end of the city to Winston Churchill Collegiate in Scarborough, where the high-school program is housed, she said.
"That will never diminish the experience that they had at this school," Ms. Spence said Thursday.
She said the curriculum, which adds culturally relevant elements to the more European roots of the coursework mandated by Ontario's Ministry of Education, has made their experience richer. "You really can't underestimate positive self-esteem, self-worth and what that type of confidence brings to the learning experience," Ms. Spence said.
Ms. Spence, who has been at the school since September, invited select news media to speak with her about the controversial school's progress on Thursday. About 200 students are enrolled in the alternative school and come from as far away as Peel Region.
The school was highly controversial when it first opened in the fall of 2009 with close to 115 students in kindergarten through Grade 5. Outside criticism died down after enrolment boomed in the first few months and students posted strong standardized test scores, but internal strife has been a constant for Ontario's first public Africentric school.
Tensions between parents led to arguments over whether the curriculum was Africentric enough. Some parents even complained that students' uniforms, African-print vests over white shirts and navy slacks, should be replaced with a traditional West African dashiki.
Those tensions boiled over in the fall of 2010, when a parent complaint led to the temporary suspension of then-principal Thando Hyman-Aman and an investigation of allegations she had mistreated a student. The complaint was later dismissed, but the dispute revealed parents' deep engagement in how the school was being run.
As the students approached Grade 8, the TDSB started planning an Africentric high school. Controversy plagued the school yet again in the spring of 2011 when the Toronto District School Board proposed housing the new alternative high school within Oakwood Collegiate, but the community deeply opposed the idea. An alternative location was found, and a pilot program for the high school opened this fall at Winston Churchill Collegiate, with just six students enrolled. As a result of low enrolment, students were integrated into the regular school program but were given an added Africentric component to their studies.
The program lost a key advocate in former education director Chris Spence, who resigned earlier this year amid allegations of plagiarism. Dr. Spence's sister took over as principal of the elementary program this fall after Ms. Hyman-Aman resigned from the post, which is widely regarded as one of the toughest school administrator jobs within the TDSB.