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Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies

Toronto Struggles to Right Achievement Gap

By Gregory Kane
Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies

TORONTO - Moments before Jordan Manners died, he was standing on a stairwell in his school, chatting with two girls.

Then two boys – young men he knew – grabbed Manners and dragged him down the stairs. One of them put a .25-caliber handgun to his chest and fired. They rifled through his pockets and left the dying Manners, only 15, sprawled at the bottom of the stairwell.

Manners was black, as were his two assailants. He didn’t die in Baltimore or Detroit, two American cities that annually vie with each other as the nation’s deadliest. He didn’t die in Newark, N.J., or Philadelphia, two other American cities known to have high numbers of homicide for young black men.

Manners died at C.W. Jeffrey’s Collegiate Institute, a public high school here. And while this city and country isn’t known for its gun violence as much as its U.S. counterparts are, what it does share with them is an academic achievement gap that threatens the future of black students here – and feeds the type of destructiveness that claimed Manners’ life.

Black students comprise only 12 percent of Toronto’s public school population, according to Maria Yau, the school district’s project coordinator for research and informational services. But they make up a disproportionately large percentage of students who are considered “at risk.”

Toronto students need 30 credits to graduate high school. A student with fewer than seven credits by the ninth-grade, or fewer than 16 credits by the 10th-grade, is considered to be at risk.

While only 5 percent of Toronto’s public school ninth-graders, overall, are considered at risk, 9 percent to 10 percent of black students have been put in that category, according to Yau.

The situation worsens by the time they hit 10th grade; by then 40 percent of the black students are at risk, a number that is 8 percent higher than the overall number of 10th graders saddled with that label, she said.

Also, like in the United States, the black-white achievement gap among public schoolchildren in this city has a lot do with where they live. Simply, white students from affluent neighborhoods outperform blacks from poor neighborhoods.

One of those poor neighborhoods is Jane-Finch, where Jefferys is located and where Manners was killed. Many of its students come from nearby public housing projects. The residents are poor, and many are black. And, for years now, the city has struggled to get the academic achievement of those students on par with their white and Asian public-school counterparts.

Like all too many inner-city American schools, Jefferys is a high school that, in the words of Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno, has been “long a troubled school.”
A March 14, 2010, story in the Toronto Sun with the headline, “Inner-city schools need a helping hand,” summed up the gap: “The 25 schools in Toronto’s wealthiest neighborhoods – with one exception – consistently in the last five years scored A’s – in the 80 percent range – on standardized grades three and grades six Educational Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests.

“The 25 schools at the bottom of the socio-economic scale consistently over the past five years scored D’s and F’s – from 46 percent to the mid-50s,” the newspaper reported.

Yau said there are 24 schools in the Jane-Finch area - four highs schools, four middle schools, one school that covers grades junior kindergarten (for 4-year-olds) through eight and 15 elementary schools, covering grades junior kindergarten through five.

Students in grades three and six take EQAO exams in reading, writing and math. Those in grade nine take a math test. (High school students in Toronto enroll in one of three courses of study: academic, for those planning to attend a university; applied, for those planning to attend college; and essential, for those planning to enter either the work force or become apprentices, according to Yau.)

To meet Ontario’s provincial standards (Toronto is the provincial capital of Ontario), students must score 70 or above on the tests. There are 11 schools in Jane-Finch that had, over a four-year period, 40 percent or more of its students consistently fail to meet provincial standards in reading, writing and math for grades three and six and for grade nine in math, according to figures taken from the Web site

 The numbers at Jefferys and another Jane-Finch high school, Westview Centennial Secondary School, are particularly revealing. In the school year starting in 2005, only 17 percent of students in the applied course met provincial standards on the math exam. From 2006-2009, those figures were 8 percent, 4 percent and 13 percent.

Thirty-nine percent of Jefferys students in the applied course scored less than 60 in the school year starting in 2005. The figures for 2006-2009 were 47 percent, 64 percent and 55 percent.

At Westview, the percentages meeting provincial standards for students taking the applied course were 12 percent, 10 percent, 13 percent and 12 percent for the four-year period starting in 2005. The percentages of those scoring less than 60 were 37 percent, 31 percent, 38 percent and 52 percent in

 “(Jane-Finch is) a community that in many ways has been recognized as marginalized and an area of high crime,” said Courtney Betty, a black Toronto lawyer who represented Manners’ family after his death.

Betty said he ran a youth program in the Jane-Finch community “about 20 years ago.” When he returned there to meet Manners’ mother, he said he noticed how the community had changed - how many of its residents could be described as people who live “outside the system.”

Manners, Betty said, was a young man who did very well in the eighth-grade but began to struggle when he entered high school.

“He was exposed to all these elements,” Betty said. “There was a change.”

Statistically, Manners, who was killed on May 23, 2007, had an even chance of being out of school rather than in.  Betty and Michael Thompson, the lone black Canadian on the City Council, put the black dropout rate at 40 percent. Michael Coteau, a district School Board trustee, said it’s “well over 50 percent.”

Coteau, whose position is similar to that of  a school board member in the United States, offered other sobering statistics of what it’s like to be a young black male in Toronto, specifically, and Canada, in general.

There’s a 40 percent chance young black males will live in a single-parent household, he said.  And for those who do, there’s a 60 percent chance their family will be mired in poverty.

“If you’re in the age range of nine to 16 years old, you represent the highest percentage of those in group homes. You’re the No. 1 victim of hate crimes,” Coteau said.

He added that a third of black males in group homes are on some kind of medication, and the Toronto Star just completed a six-part series that concluded Toronto police racially profile young black men.
The history of black people in Canada, arguably, is much more complicated than that of their counterparts in the United States. Blacks arrived in Canada as early as the American Revolutionary War. Some were slaves of American Loyalists who supported the British during that conflict.

In the 1790s, British colonial authorities uprooted Maroons from Trelawney, Jamaica, who had rebelled and waged war against the Crown and resettled them in Nova Scotia. The Nova Scotia Maroons were eventually moved yet again to Sierra Leone.

Another wave of blacks came during the War of 1812. Some historians say that 200 slaves from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, who served the British as scouts and spies, were resettled in Nova Scotia. Dr. George Elliott Clarke, an English professor at the University of Toronto, said he is a descendant of those blacks.

According to the oral history that has been handed down from his ancestors and other sources, the number of blacks from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia was around 2,000, and Clarke said his ancestors did not leave voluntarily.

“The British, who were still major slaveholders and slave traffickers, as a matter of war policy, not emancipation,” Clarke wrote in an e-mail, “seize/liberate 2,200 slaves and send them against their will to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, 1813-1815, my maternal ancestors among them.”

Fugitive slaves from America were the next wave but the most significant number of black immigrants – mainly from the Caribbean– started in the 1950s and increased in the 1960s, when many immigration restrictions were removed.  In 2006, Toronto’s 2.48 million residents included 208,555 blacks, who made up 8.4 percent of the city’s population, according to the website

The growing numbers of immigrants led to a special set of problems in their communities. Chief among them are the racially isolated neighborhoods that are linked to the educational gap between black students and their white and Asian counterparts.

Dr. Ronald Blake, who founded the Higher Marks Educational Institute (HMEI) in 1979, said he started worrying about Toronto’s black-white achievement gap more than 30 years ago.

 “Black students, especially black males, were failing in schools at rates that were unbelievable,” Blake said. He began Higher Marks as an alternative private school and a place to tutor struggling public school students “to correct black underperformance.”

HMEI struggled in the beginning, but Blake said after one Jewish student – who was enrolled at his mother’s insistence – passed a university exam, the enrollment skyrocketed. The Jewish student’s mother alerted the news media to Blake’s school. Several news stories followed and the school began to boom.

Blake is leery of giving exact figures for his school’s enrollment, but he said that today all students attending HMEI are black. But in previous years, he said, white enrollment has been as high as 40 percent.

Although Blake started HMEI specifically to address the achievement gap and receives not one Canadian loonie of public education money, Toronto school officials also have worked to lessen the gap between students by opening alternative schools. There are now roughly 41 such alternative schools in the city, which are designed to give students a more personalized education – inside and outside the classroom.

 Not all of the schools were established to specifically address the achievement gap. A few stress student input in the decision-making process, for example. Another is an alternative school for gay students. But at least four were formed with the purpose of helping “at risk” students. Of all the alternative schools, only the city’s new Africentric school was established with a black student body in mind.

 Although HMEI existed for years as a predominantly black school, Blake was critical of the Africentric Alternative School, which opened at the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year and has become a lightning rod for controversy.

 “I don’t discriminate,” Blake said, pointing to a photo on the wall of a white student who formerly attended HMEI. “I do not support a black school. That’s reverse racism. That’s why I don’t discriminate at this school.”

 Blake is not alone in his condemnation of Toronto’s Africentric school. Thompson, the City Council member – or councillor, as the position is called in Toronto – said, “I’m on public record as not supporting an Africentric school.”

Coteau voted for it, but is lukewarm to the idea. “I’ve never been 100 percent convinced it’s a good thing,” he said.

Betty said he would have preferred that the money spent on the Africentric school been used for after-school programs to help “re-engage” students at risk of dropping out. But the Africentric school, located in Jane-Finch, has its supporters. Chief among them is parent Angela Wilson who, along with Donna Harrow, another parent, spearheaded the effort to establish the school.

Wilson said one of her proudest achievements was getting the school started. She provided a laundry list of reasons for why she did it, chief among them is what she sees as a disconnect between most Toronto teachers and black students.

 “Eighty-five (percent) to 90 percent of Toronto’s teachers are white females,” Wilson said. “And they don’t live in black neighborhoods. They don’t have an understanding of the students they’re teaching.”

Wilson was born in Jamaica and immigrated with her parents to Canada when she was eight years old. In addition to getting teachers who can relate more to Toronto’s black students, Wilson wants to bring to the Africentric School a touch of the kind of education she received in Jamaica.

“The school teacher wasn’t only a school teacher,” Wilson said of her education in the West Indies. “You’d see that teacher in church. You saw them in every aspect of your life. It was a true sense of what an education should be.”

George Dei, a professor at the University of Toronto and a strong advocate of the school, said the Africentric school has eight black teachers and a student body of 130, with the goal of eventually adding three more black teachers.

 “I’ve been writing about the need to have black-focused schools since the 1980s,” he said, refuting the charges of critics that an Africentric school would be “segregated.”

The Africentric school is “optional,” Dei said, not segregated.

“We will never know until we try,” he said of the impact an Africentric school could have on black students who struggle in traditional school settings.

 “Something has to be done,” he said.

Gregory Kane is a writer and columnist in Baltimore.

Index of Black-White Achievement Gap Stories