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Mixed support for black-focused schools in Nova Scotia

The country's largest school board has voted to open Africentric schools and some African Nova Scotians say Halifax should have one too.

By Aaron Burnett <aaburnett@dal.ca>

Posted: Feb. 5, 2008

Wayn Anderson leads a libation ceremony at the opening of African Heritage Month. Photo: Aaron Burnett

Wayn Anderson leads a libation ceremony at the opening of African Heritage Month. Photo: Aaron Burnett

When Barb Hamilton-Hinch first learned of the Toronto District School Board’s vote to open a black-focused school, she commended the decision. 

“That is great for Toronto,” says Hamilton-Hinch, Dalhousie University’s Black Student Advisor. “I wish Nova Scotia could get organized around that same idea and make it happen.” 

Hamilton-Hinch says if there was an Africentric school in Halifax Regional Municipality, her two boys, aged five and eight, would be attending. 

Sources with the Halifax Regional School Board say the board has no reaction to Toronto’s vote. But Hamilton-Hinch isn’t the only person supporting the idea of an Africentric school in HRM. Citadel High School Principal Wade Smith first called for a black-focused school in HRM nearly two years ago. 

“The times in our society indicate that this would be inevitable,” Smith says, arguing that an Africentric school would lower the high dropout rate among black students.

The segregation debate

Barb Hamilton-Hinch: "If there was an Africentric school here, my two boys would be in it." Photo: Aaron Burnett

Barb Hamilton-Hinch: "If there was an Africentric school here, my two boys would be in it." Photo: Aaron Burnett

Some opponents of Africentric schools say opening one will bring back the days of segregation. “This black school thing – no, it ain’t right,” said Loreen Small, the mother of Jordan Manners, who was shot to death last spring at his northwest Toronto school. “Martin Luther King thought we could sit at the front of the bus together,” Small told the Toronto school board before its vote. 

Smith says opening up an Africentric school wouldn’t be segregating black students because any student could choose whether or not to attend, even if they weren’t black. Smith also says the Africentric school is designed to teach black students history in a way that the students will see themselves in it, something the mainstream system fails to do. 

“I don’t think it’s fair that an African Nova Scotian learner could possibly go through an entire school career and not hear anything about themselves of any real relevance,” Smith says.  

Hamilton-Hinch says she can personally relate to how the mainstream system, in her opinion, marginalizes black learners. “I grew up not liking who I was for 16 years of my life,” she says. “There was nothing that told me that I mattered as a black person.” 

Both Hamilton-Hinch and Smith say Africentric schools can boost academic performance among black students by making the curriculum more relevant to them. “It can raise children’s self-esteem, it can do certain things where students see themselves in the centre of their own history,” Smith says. 

“Our children need to know that they were the founders of science and math,” says Hamilton-Hinch. She goes on to clarify what she means, by talking about Imhotep, the Egyptian teacher of Hippocrates. “In my opinion, Imhotep was the true father of medicine,” she explains. “So when people are taking the Hippocratic Oath, in my opinion, they should be taking the Imhotep oath.” 

But some African Nova Scotians say opening up an Africentric school in HRM may be moving too fast. “I think it’s a very good idea,” says Wanda Ince as she takes in opening night for African Heritage Month. “But I don’t think that Halifax is ready for it.” 

Ince says her 10 year-old daughter is the only person of colour in her classroom and experiences schoolyard racism on a regular basis. “There’s still a lot of prejudice in our city and I think if we did this now, we’d just go back in time,” says Ince. 

Moderate approaches

Wanda Ince says Toronto may be ready for the schools, but Halifax isn't yet. Photo: Aaron Burnett

Wanda Ince says Toronto may be ready for the schools, but Halifax isn't yet. Photo: Aaron Burnett

New Democrat MLA Percy Paris says he’s holding a series of meeting with Toronto teachers to discuss Africentric schooling, but he says he favours a more moderate approach right now.  

“In Nova Scotia, we set up a system where we’re not truly inclusive,” Paris says. “We weave black history into the school curriculum and as good as that sounds, it’s kept separate from the other history kids are taught,” he continues. “I would like to see the mainstream textbooks have more Mik’maq and black history as part of the pages.” 

But Smith says even that may not be enough. “There are other things that can be subtle. It could be the way that we decorate the building, it could be the signs that we put up, it could be the uniforms we choose to wear or all of these other things that could encompass the culture,” he says. 

“It’s not just about the curriculum,” says Hamilton-Hinch. “It’s about seeing yourself present in everything.”