Ja-born principal of Toronto-based Africentric Alternative School leads by example
Luther Brown, principal of the Africentric Alternative School (AAS) in Toronto, says his experience has been good since starting at the school on February 1.
"The parents are welcoming and supportive, staff are enthusiastic and showing a sort of energy that I feel is a good energy to lead us in the direction we want to go. The students are bright; we don't seem to know that. As a large group, to find so many students who are bright is not a regular occurrence," says the Jamaica-born educator.
There are 110 kindergarten to grade 8 students attending the school which opened in September 2009 and is located in the Sheppard Avenue W. and Keele Street area.
Brown says there is a wide array of students, in terms of abilities and how they give back, but he thinks that in relation to the places he has worked his gut estimate of kids who are really good thinkers is that there are many at the school.
This is part of the reason he wants the staff to be clear about helping them to become leaders so that all of the students who graduate from there will create change by leading.
When he was appointed principal, Curtis Ennis, Toronto District School Board (TDSB) superintendent for the school, noted Brown's strong sense of community and the fact that many grass-roots organisations know him and his work.
Brown said this connectedness to the community has been beneficial for him. People have told him on many occasions that he is "the right man for the job".
His first teaching job at was Brookview Middle School in the Jane St. and Driftwood Ave. area where he did so for a few years before becoming the vice principal.
That was where his administrative career was launched which took him "in a circuitous way back to Jane & Finch".
"It is a good feeling to be connected again in this community the way I am," says Brown who lived in that community for "generations", where he knew people like media personality, Dwight Drummond, and singer, Julie Black, who have excelled in their work.
In the "Africentric Alternative School Research Project Year 3 (2013-2014)," Professor Carl James and others recommend that: "A clearly articulated vision of the school, although an ongoing process, is necessary for the school and community to work together, without public misconceptions detracting from the school's success."
Brown says the morale in the school is good, and that the idea that the research generates is helpful particularly to him as someone who is coming in new.
"It gives me the opportunity to help to fashion what the vision can become because it already had a vision. The vision might not have been articulated in ways that the people wanted to feel it, and as well it was an early evolving vision and so people would have all kinds of opinions about what it should be. I take my cues from the birth of the school. It was a fight to have black students, en masse, achieve at high levels. It was a fight to have a school where students feel connected, feel cared for, feel loved, and feel that they're wanted."
He says if one listens to most of the conversations that were public, those were the contentions that parents brought forward, not just to the TDSB, but to Canada, in general.
They wanted their children to be treated in a certain way, so according to Brown, "This school has to have a vision that seeks to meet those desires."
That means high academic expectations, a good social environment, "we have to be connected with our culture, and we have to be able to understand that the African culture is not a uniculture. It's kind of like African music, it's polyrhythmic in many different ways."
Brown says they have to look at a broader spectrum and then have to focus.
"What we've been doing as a staff is we're looking to say, OK, we're going to focus on academic excellence, on students well-being, and on building our community relations."
The other aspect of this vision is to ensure that, internally, they are clear about it.
As a result, partnering with Professor James, they had a staff retreat at York University on May 23.
The purpose of the retreat was to re-examine the vision, determine which aspects to focus on, and to look at what their teaching practise will be.
In welcoming the announcement that Brown was the new principal, Yolisa Dalamba, an active parent and member of the school council, said she hoped he would work with them "to restore academic excellence, healing and cultural pride in our school that makes up for all the turbulence, especially our students, have endured since the school doors opened."
She noted that they have very high expectations of him "to work in partnership with parents and other stakeholders to uphold and realise Africentricity in our philosophy, pedagogy, and political and cultural practise, infused with the Pan-African and anti-colonial legacies of resistance left by our ancestors. Some of those include anti-oppression, decolonisation, resisting white supremacist values and breaking down systemic barriers."
Brown said if the AAS as an Africentric school cannot interrogate white supremacy without being fearful then they have a problem.
"But we also have to define that white supremacy isn't just the notion of the KKK, etc. It's an understanding of the power relationships that occur in society where one race is highly dominant in just about every area. It's not a hard research activity to find out. One could look at television and see how people are represented, see who delivers what, see who decides on images and who decides on knowledge that get shared and so on."
The retreat examined texts, contexts, for example, visits to exhibitions and galleries to consider how the knowledge are presented, and to determine if erasure is happening to someone, using a social justice lens.
"I think as a school we have to be clear about our Africentric lens and be clear that we use it on a regular basis."
In terms of how the students are doing, academically, Brown said he is not happy with their results as measured by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), however that's going to change.
He thinks people are moving in the right direction right now. "We're working to develop our long range plans that will allow everybody, before September, to say this is what I'm going to be teaching and parents will know."