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?

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. The worst performing students in HRM are at Nelson Whynder school, and other schools with poor results happen to be in low income areas of Dartmouth and Halifax.
    The students with the worst educational outcomes in England and Wales are poor working class white boys.
    Engaged parents are the essential element of educational attainment, and two parents generally lead to
    better results.
    Student achievement in HRM schools is of little or no interest to Mayor savage and his council colleagues; it appears they are more interested in the achievements of international students attending local universities.

  2. Excellent article! Just as a good article requires context, so too does a good comment!
    In 42 years of teaching, I never once heard any educational leader at any level answer these questions posed by, e.g., school board members representing the Black or Mi’Kmaq communities- 1. Why are our children more likely to have an IPP?
    2. When data is dis-aggregated , why is it that our children are a) more likely to be suspended and b)when suspended, receive more harsh suspension conditions than the white students being suspended?
    3. Why is it that our kids have greater percentages of children “not meeting the expected outcomes”?
    There was never a thorough answer given because the educational leaders didn’t have a good one; they still don’t!
    Kimber is right to point out that tossing around the phrase de jour “culturally relevant pedagogy” is not going to fool anyone. Yet, this is the go-to for many ‘senior administrators’.
    Dr. Avis Glaze made it very clear that she expected that if she returned to Nova Scotia in five years and found that not all students had benefited from educational reforms that she would be greatly disappointed; she ,specifically, was referring to learning outcomes.

    What might produce results? If the EECD (Ed. Dept.) instead focused on representatives from the linguistic communities (Bernie Francis for ex.) and reps. from the world of writers and from the world of Art, including performing artists, actually were recruited and paid to offer select lessons to all students with the lens being on their own culture’s perspectives and understandings , then the disaffected communities might feel that progress was occurring. The concept is referred to as ‘ nothing about us without us’. That works! It, by itself, may not be enough though.
    Here’s another angle- without intentional actions, like establishing a rigorous review of student records so as to identify “lagging skills and unsolved problems” (Ross Greene, LOST AT SCHOOL) and then sitting down and drafting a “Cooperative Planning Strategy” ( ibid)- what are the priorities? how are they going to be addressed? by whom? in what time frame?- without this sort of focus on intentionality, then you end up with vague responses like- we’ll apply a culturally responsive pedagogy. Well, good luck with that!
    There is also this prospect- now that former “administrators” are now “managers”- management’s tenure could be contingent upon improved results in designated areas. Status quo results or further declines in outcome fulfillment could then mean that managers would be ‘let go’ for not effectively addressing the questions above and many others. This is really like a CEO who oversees a steep or steady decline in share value of the corporation. “Shareholders get cranky and the CEO gets tossed.”

    The plan, post commission on inclusion, is to have the EECD made up 50 % of current-classroom master teachers and to have some of those in the Dept. sent out into the classrooms. If the former was to happen , there are a number of excellent Black and Mi’kmaq educators to draw from.

  3. Why would we have any faith in a government with zero black representatives to properly fund an Africentric school and which would be put in place according to the wishes of African Nova Scotians? Yes, this is a defeatist position, but it’s also realistic in the present reality.
    This would be a great idea in a society where all Nova Scotians had equal opportunity, where the proportion of African Nova Scotians (ind Indigenous Nova Scotians) living in poverty wasn’t obscenely higher that the already obscene levels of general poverty in this province.
    Just last week, at grand rounds at the IWK, a presenter from Acadia presented a report on child poverty in this province, something she has been reporting on since 2000 (the year, incidentally, by which the government had promised unanimously to end child poverty in Canada). She was presenting to a room of paediatricians, all of whom make salaries that place them in better than the 1% of this province.
    Here’s something that really struck me. The chief of medicine, Andrew Lynk, reminded his audience, that he had participated in the recent negotiations that earned all physicians in this province an 8% increase over the next 4 years. This 8% translates to a minimum of $16,000 a year extra for physicians in 2024. It’s probably more in reality but what nobody seems to get about poverty is that in this system that we are all a part of, and just seems to be accepted as something as normal as the fact that we need oxygen to breathe, the money that there is to go around is finite. This means that more for some means less for others. When the government makes a decision to increase physician salaries by this much they are responding to pressure from a very empowered group of people who can make credible threats of withdrawal of labour, leaving the province, etc.
    Try to imagine the government response (let alone the response from the public and media) if people were to demand that social assistance rates be increased by $16, 000 over the next four years, or that minimum wage be increased to $20 an hour (an extra $16, 000 per year from today’s minimum wage).
    The only difference is that we view certain people in society as deserving and others as not so much. Physicians are seen as people who had to work hard to achieve what they did (forget the advantage the vast majority of physicians already enjoyed that in huge part enabled them to get into med school). But people on social assistance should just get a job and “why should I pay for them to sit around and do nothing?” This is the propaganda that has been drummed into us; that some people should make enough to be able to buy summer homes, fancy cars, huge houses and that some people don’t deserve enough to eat, should have to witness their children not get what they need in terms of decent housing and nutrition, that some people don’t deserve to not have to choose between food, the electricity bill or the oil bill.
    As a member of a union, and a member of its bargaining council, I know that I have always fought for better working conditions for the nurses I work with, but I have never questioned the raises that we just take for granted as deserving. But I make a decent living, not the level of decent of some, like physicians or CEOs or government ministers or our glorious business elite, but still, I live well. It bugs me more and more that we continue to allow poverty to exist when we have enough to go around to ensure everyone can live with dignity. What is needed is a realisation that we are all victims of a class war that has essentially been won by the ownership, capitalist, business class, and that what needs doing is for the majority to take back some of that undeserved wealth for people who actually need it.
    When that is achieved, or better if, that is achieved, then maybe the discussion about Africentric schools would be one that is more grounded in the hope that African Nova Scotian students can enjoy a culturally appropriate experience of education instead of being disproportionately affected by the consequences of poverty on students’ educational outcomes, which affects them in the society we still live in today, and still would, even in an Africentric school.

  4. I don’t see the harm in trying this. If it doesn’t improve outcomes then at least we have evidence it doesn’t work. I suspect it will work especially if the educators are tasked with providing mentorship.