With a whopping 40 percent dropout rate there is little doubt that black students are struggling in Ontario classrooms. But fixing the problem has led to many heated discussions among community activists, parents and educators alike.

Why is the dropout rate so high? Many of these kids live in poverty in neighbourhoods plagued by violence. Poverty can have a profound impact on student success. A 2004 report by the United Way, says the effects of poverty seep into every aspect of life for these families.

“There is a well-documented association in the research literature between poverty and such adverse outcomes as poorer health, low birth weight, shorter life expectancy, lower educational achievement, and lower reading and writing abilities of children.,” the report states.

Kids who live in poverty have little access to museums, galleries and even libraries. They often arrive at school malnourished. In some cases, the meals they get for the day are the meals they get at school.  

Also, impoverished neighbourhoods are often violent neighbourhoods and much of this violence is happening right on school grounds. A report commissioned last year by the Ontario government, looking at the troubling trend of serious violent crime among Ontario’s students, points to a real sense of despondency and disengagement among kids who eventually get involved in violence.

“Most youth who feel connected to and engaged with the broader society, and who feel valued and safe and see a positive future for themselves in it, will not experience these conditions and will not commit serious violence,” the report asserts.

Most believe that the solution to the problem is to help black students feel connected, engaged and safe in their schools. But how to do that has sparked a fierce debate.

Last year, some educators and community activists called for a black-focused, or Africentric, elementary school with a curriculum that teaches children more about their own heritage. There was such a groundswell of support for an Africentric school that the Toronto District School Board opened one in September 2009.

“If you connect the experiences and realities and histories of children to the learning process, they learn better, they are much more engaged, they are much more excited about learning than if they don’t see themselves in the process,” Grace-Edward Galabuzi, is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, said on a TVOParents panel discussion on the issue.

Opponents agree the current curriculum is Eurocentric but that requires a curriculum overhaul, not an alternative school. “Our curriculum needs reform. It needs to better reflect the diversity of our city here in Toronto, it’s got to better reflect Canada and the worlds that we live in, but students, I submit, need to learn together,” Josh Matlow, a Toronto District School Board trustee, rebutted on Your Voice.

Many parents have been reluctant to enroll their kids. In fact, the school just barely met its enrollment requirements by the deadline. The idea of separating out kids who already feel marginalized might be a dangerous exercise.  

For Courtney Betty, a lawyer and activist in Toronto’s black community, an Africentric school is letting school boards off the hook.

“All of the sudden they’re now endorsing what in my view is a knee-jerk type reaction to say we’re doing something. I don’t think that it’s the right solution. I think that we need to look at a more holistic way of engaging our young people in the 21st century,” Betty said on Your Voice.

What do you think? Is separation the best way to teach struggling kids? How do you think Ontario should be dealing with the issue?

For more discussion and a heated debate on the issue, watch Toronto’s Africentric School. Is it Needed? Is it Wanted?