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Toronto District School Board trustees last night approved a contentious proposal for a black-focused school in the city, The Globe's Caroline Alphonso and James Bradshaw wrote today in their front-page article Toronto trustees narrowly approve black-focused school

The 11-9 vote in favour came after an evening of impassioned pleas both for and against the school from community members.

"This is a bold decision. We're opening ourselves up for real change in the system," said trustee Michael Coteau.

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But Trustee Josh Matlow, who opposed the motion, said it would simply lead to more divisiveness among students.

"We don't believe that students should be divided by race, even if it's with the best of intentions."

Even those bold quotes don't sum up the full debate which has stirred deep emotions within the black community and in the city at large.

That has come out on message boards, radio call-in shows, letters to the editor and online discussions.

For media, covering such an emotional debate comes with its challenges.

The Globe's Toronto Editor Gregory Boyd Bell was online today and answered questions about media coverage, the school board vote and what we can expect next in the debate.

Your questions and Mr. Boyd Bell's answers appear at the bottom of this page when the discussion begins.

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Mr. Boyd Bell has veered between alternative and mainstream media in a career that started in the mid-1980s with the University of Calgary campus/community radio station.

He has worked as an editor and feature writer for business magazines, and as an editor and National Magazine Award-nominated columnist for Toronto alternative weekly Eye. He directed the news section for the prototype and first year of a free Toronto daily, and was an editor in the City department of The Toronto Star before coming to The Globe in 2005.

Sasha Nagy, globeandmail.com writes: Greg: Thanks for taking time out of your day to answer reader questions on this proposal for a black-focused school in Toronto. There are many questions, so it's best to get right to them.

Gordon White from Vancouver writes: Once the precedent is set, do you predict that other ethnic groups will pursue Asia-centric, Euro-centric, Hispanic-centric schools? Ultimately, using the slippery slope argument, if this Africentric proposal is approved - what are the implications for other groups? And what is your prediction for the long-term impact of institutionalized segregation of Canada's children?

Gregory Boyd Bell: Slippery slopes are ordinarily better suited to skis than debate, but since this very suggestion was put to the school board trustees who voted in favour of the scheme, I think's it's a fair one. I think it's important first to note that this is by no means the first alternative school idea in Toronto: There is a First Nations school, a lesbian/gay/bi school, arts-focused schools and a host of others. And then there's an entire public school board for parents who want their children educated in the context of Catholicism.

That said, I'll address the question of whether an Afrocentric school would prompt appeals for other culturally-themed schools. That would depend largely on whether the Toronto board can be persuaded that there is a substantial need for such an alternative. In fact, one could make a very strong argument for an alternative school aimed at students of Portuguese background, whose dropout rates are nearly as high as those among children born in the English-speaking Caribbean.

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Chris A from Canada writes: Does this not open up the issue of religious based schools, etc. in the end will it not cost more as, it seems as though every ethnic and religious group would now be able to request it's own school. Do you think this is really a great precedent to be setting?

Gregory Boyd Bell: Advocates of the Afrocentric school proposal might suggest that the overall cost of staggering dropout rates and their correlation with poverty and criminality would make the extra spending on a school a very good investment. In any event, the notion of precedent can be overstated here. My understanding of public school board policy is that alternative school proposals need to be able to prove that there is a pedagogical need, not just a preference that one's children associate with their ethno-cultural peers.

Better to light a small candle than to sit and curse the darkness from Canada writes: I think it is worth a try since there is a terrible waste of potential when black students quit school early. However although I believe that the while majority of the teachers should be black, the school should also be open to non-black students. It is important not to create a ghetto atmosphere. Bullying and diviseness ought not to be tolerated for one moment.

Gregory Boyd Bell: The board has been most insistent that the proposed Afrocentric school will be open to any qualified student who wishes to attend. As to discipline issues, I suspect that such a school will be judged initially entirely on its capacity to manage its student body within a tolerable low rate of suspensions and expulsions. My guess is that such a school will find itself living in a fishbowl of attention, where the risk exists that the slightest playground shoving match becomes a scandal.

Marvel Murray from Hollywood California writes: I support a Black-Focus School if it is not geared towards separation of black and white students. I strongly believe that it is important to have a School that is focus on teaching blacks about feeling good about themselves, teach them about their background and their history. A Black-focus school will most likely have educators who can understand black children, and black children will probably feel more comfortable to have someone who understand them. We already know that there is Racism everywhere in Canada, and I as a black person has experience racism at every place that I have worked in Canada. I have to ask my myself many times 'if the workplaces are so racist, then what is the school system like?' I feel that a Black-focus school with good programs in place would be the best thing for black children. I would like a Black-focus school to focus on improving children self esteem, and education, and to offer these children jobs when they are finish with school. To all the people that say that they dont want a Black-focus school, I say to you that you do not understand the black culture and the stereotypes that we as black people suffer from. Canada is already segregrated in the workplaces, so a black-focus school would be good for self-esteem before the childen enter the workforce.

Gregory Boyd Bell: As an editor, I'm necessarily agnostic on the subject of whether the proposed Afrocentric school is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.

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But it is a matter of (sadly, repeatedly) reported fact that racism does permeate Canadian institutions, workplaces, playgrounds, etc.

Laura Young from Canada writes: The trigger spurring action for the TDSB trustees giving a green light to black-centred schools is recent violence, not an overriding concern for grades of the black segment of the school population, as is made clear by giving Jordon Manners mother a platform at yesterdays meeting.

Sheila Ward, the former Chair of the TDSB recently mentioned twice in a letter to the editor of a Toronto paper that it is hard for trustees to deal with the culture of violence in schools because the system is 'hierarchal'. To me, the trustees motivation seems to be to sweep their 'problem' into schools where taxpayers that contribute the bulk of school funds will not hear about them. They've demonstrated by their lack of interest in Julian Falconer's inquiry that they don't have the inclination nor stomach to solve complex, messy life problems that come with governing a diverse school population.

If the answer to C.W. Jefferys type violence is to take the remaining whites and other ethnicities out of this school located south of Finch on Sentinel, then what about the recent violence at the school just a stones throw away, on Sentinel North of Finch, York University? The students at York U do not feel safe, and rapes in stairwells are now a common occurence, to hear the school population talk. The rapes committed at York in September are alleged to have been whites from Thornhill. Is the answer to York's problems to create a black-centred university? Then why is that perceived as the the answer to CW Jeffery's? Because the population of a school happens to be black does not mean that the violence that happens to it stems from the colour of the school population. The violence at York U must soon be addressed by an expert qualified to corelate statistics, not armchair psychologists, and I feel that what applies to York will apply to C.W. Jeffery's, as they exist in the same community. Am I completely off base?

Gregory Boyd Bell: Quite a few good questions, which I'll try to unbundle in order:

  • The Jordan Manners killing certainly added energy and pathos to some of the arguments in favour of an Afrocentric school. But I'm not persuaded that it changed the position of enough school trustees to make a difference. The notion of a black-focused school has been on the board's agenda since 1995, and was moving to the front burner a year ago, well before the awful death of young Jordan.
  • I take your point about the awesome complexity of the problems inherent in school achievement, let alone wider questions of what the sources may be of violence in schools and outside them. I personally don't believe trustees are trying to do anything other than manage a nearly intractable problem with the tools they have to hand. Whether they have chosen the right tools is what this debate is largely about.
  • I'm not sure what you're getting at on the topic of York, though I would note that a recently reported (and in some venues I would say over-reported) sexual assault at a York University residence did not actually happen, according to police.

Devil Bud from Toronto writes: This may be something that has come up before, but seeing as the provincial government does not seem too pleased with this idea, why haven't they done anything about it? Being within the education umbrella, wouldn't the ultimate decision rest with the minister of education? In other words, seeing as government can 'delegate' but never 'abdicate,' shouldn't the minister step in if she is not in agreement?

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Gregory Boyd Bell: Good point. So far the signs from the education ministry and the Premier's Office suggest disapproval mixed with a profound aversion to getting mixed up in this. Many of the autopsies on the recent Ontario provincial election found that the Progressive Conservatives' espousal of public support for private religious education was a fatal flaw in their platform, once it was discovered by reporters and subtlely exploited by the Liberals. Having won a surprisingly comfortable re-election in part thanks to the toxicity of public debate on schools, public funds and religion, I'm guessing that Premier Dalton McGuinty's advisors would as soon ask him to juggle rattlesnakes as suggest stepping into the Afrocentric school debate.

Sasha Nagy writes: Greg: Thanks for your time and your answers. In closing, can you tell us what specific challenges you face when covering a racially charged issue such as this one?

Gregory Boyd Bell: When race is part of a story, the usual requirements that news reporting be fair and complete as well as timely take on a sharper edge. We intend to keep up with this story as it develops, with an emphasis on actual news developments rather than arguments about what may or may not happen. I see the practice of education as the ultimate soft science; one can't experiment with new approaches using control groups and the equivalent of placebos. Instead, new ideas have to be tried out in the classroom, where the key factors are the skill and dedication of the teachers, along with the will of the student to learn. If and when an Afrocentric school opens its doors in Toronto, the Globe will be among those watching closely, but I hope also with an awareness that we are looking at the future of our children and not some clash of abstractions.

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