How to slash high school drop-out rates in one easy step

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An elementary school teacher in a colourful classroom. Image: woodleywonderworks/Flickr

This is the second in a three-part series highlighting the importance of Africentric education. 

There's a fabulous educational, green-powered, bio-technological device that kids love. It can slash drop-out rates by nearly 40 per cent, and in a typical class of 30 students will send four more kids to college or university than would have gone otherwise. It works best with African, Asian, and Latinx kids, but European kids love it, too.

I promise to reveal the secret for turning disasters into masters, but first, understand the depth the crisis for African-Canadian students.

If racist teachers or principals target you in school, staying is painful, degrading, and sometimes terrifying. Sometimes they expel our kids before they can quit. Of all the students the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) expelled between 2011-12 and 2015-16, a staggering 48 per cent were African.

Then there's down-streaming -- pushing kids to take non-academic courses even when they qualify for them. Even though the TDSB ordered the end to streaming in 1999, by 2011, only 53 per cent of African students took academic courses, compared with 80 per cent of European settler kids and 81 per cent of students from all other racial backgrounds.

As the Boston Consulting Group reports, African students in Toronto make up 12 per cent of the student population, but fill only three per cent of the desks in "gifted" classrooms. Our current system is shafting fully 75 per cent of gifted African-Canadian children.

A Harvard Educational Review study from a decade ago shows that European math teachers at largely African schools in the U.S. were more likely to escalate problems than their African colleagues which "may have long-term negative consequences for student performance." If you do poorly at math, forget most careers in STEM (science, engineering, math, and technology), which according to a PEW Research Centre study about U.S. workers, bring "higher median earnings than those in other, non-STEM occupations" ($77,400 compared to $46,900).

Sometimes the discrimination is totally obvious, as with a York Region school trustee using the N-word against a mother of three, or a TDSB principal reprimanding a student for wearing her hair naturally (unstraightened), or a principal at an Edmonton Catholic elementary school accusing an 11-year-old child of being in a criminal gang for wearing a head-covering, and then banning the child's mother from the school and calling police against her.

Sadly, that's no surprise: in North America, non-Africans frequently regard African children as older than they are, more sexual than they are, guiltier than they are, and in the case of girls, needing "less nurturing, protection, support, and comfort" than Euro-Canadian or Euro-American girls.

It's no exaggeration to say that the people acting on conscious or unconscious racist beliefs by actively or passively derailing the lives of African kids are ruining lives.

No wonder so many African students quit school and never attend post-secondary education. In Toronto, the African-Canadian drop-out rate reached a stunning 40 per cent, leading the TDSB to order reducing that rate to 15 per cent. Across Canada in 2020, the drop-out rate for African students was 23 per cent, compared with 12 per cent for European settler children.

But as bad as racist school is, leaving may be worse.

Failure to graduate limits income potential, and therefore length and quality of life. Some immigrant and refugee youth may work to pay their families' bills, but without high school diplomas, are stuck in low-wage, futureless jobs.

Drop-out rates for new Canadians rose according to their age of arrival. Those who were 15 or older when they arrived face a 22 per cent failure to graduate rate. Many refugees suffer from undiagnosed and untreated trauma arising from whatever caused them to leave their homelands, which the American Psychological Association warns places them "at risk for dropping out of school, being unemployed, and possibly winding up in prison."

Quitting school is also linked with criminality, and hurts the lives of the ex-students, their families, their communities, and society at large.

For the 1.2 million African-Canadians (if we were a city, we'd be Canada's third largest), the loss of human potential is catastrophic negligence. And it's a disaster for the country.

So, what was that green-powered, bio-technological, educational device that can slash school-quitting and boost post-secondary enrollment?

African teachers.

In the U.S., African children with at least one African teacher during grades 3 to 5 were 29 per cent less likely to leave school -- and among impoverished boys, that risk fell by 39 per cent. BCG also reported that having even a single African teacher increases enrollment in college or university by 13 per cent.

As educators Erica and Michael Hines wrote in Time: "The best contemporary research reinforces what historical anecdotes reveal," that in the U.S., African teachers are, "by nearly every metric, more successful at supporting the achievement and well-being of Black children."

When teachers have conscious or unconscious racist biases, they can't "talent scout." They don't encourage excellence among African kids because they don't expect it can exist. At best, they present the soft bigotry of low expectations. If you think kids can do great things, they're more likely to live up to your expectations. Africentric teachers (whether they're African or not) are far more likely to see the potential in African kids than non-Africentric teachers.

(In my novel The Alchemists of Kush, I dramatised my own experience with highly intelligent students who never received encouragement towards excellence from the European teachers. You can read that chapter here for free.)

But teachers can't succeed without a key resource: social capital ("the network of relationships between school officials, teachers, parents and the community that builds trust and norms promoting academic achievement") which a study in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk shows is three to five times more powerful than funding for causing higher student achievement.

Want to increase the social capital that builds stronger relationships between teachers and African parents to help students achieve? Then hire more African teachers, and Africanise the non-African ones with aspirational, inspirational Africentric training and content. Build social capital by empowering teachers to create and implement Africentric solutions. As a Texas study of more than 13,000 students reports:

"Schools in which teachers showed high levels of collective efficacy had a 50 per cent reduction in the academic disadvantage experienced by [African] students, compared to schools where teachers had average levels, the study showed.

"'The importance of this finding should not be underestimated,' said Roger Goddard, lead author of the study and Novice G. Fawcett Chair and professor of educational administration at the Ohio State University… 'Principals could either empower teachers to try their best or, in some cases, could make it harder to succeed. But the teachers we talked to left no doubt that principals were crucial.'"

Now, you might be thinking, "Sure, hiring African teachers is fine for African students, but what'll Aiden, Bailey, and Cadence think?"

Well, I'm about to shock you and scare some European teachers.

A major study of more than 157,000 kids called "The Importance of Minority Teachers: Student Perceptions of Minority Versus White Teachers" found that U.S.-Asian students "have particularly favourable perceptions" of African teachers, and students "in the 'Other' racial category also report that Black teachers are particularly caring."

While all teachers are less likely to "punish students of their own race by removing them from the classroom or the school," Education Week reports that African teachers are "also slightly less likely" than other teachers "to punish students of other races…with "suspensions, detention or expulsions." That's not due to low standards, but I suspect because of empathy and a belief in redeemability.

The kids in that study also said that African and Latinx teachers are clearer, and that African teachers "hold students to high academic standards and support their efforts." African and Latinx teachers, suggest the authors, may have greater empathy for kids who frequently endure arbitrary, sometimes cruel, and often just plain stupid authority (Gee! Why might African teachers be sensitive to that?). And of course, African U.S. students "have particularly positive perceptions of [and benefit from] Black teachers."

But the headline on the U.S. National Public Radio story says it clearest of all: "Study finds students of all races prefer teachers of color."

As the Hineses wrote in Time, if we "take seriously the call to reimagine and restructure our schools in ways that recognize the value of Black lives, then a much larger focus on the recruitment and retainment of Black teachers is non-negotiable."

That's going to be tough in Canada. Currently only 1.8 per cent of teachers in our country are African, and most of them are in Ontario. Of the few African-Canadians who become teachers, many report that racist attitudes among staff and administration undermined their careers. Such teachers are less likely to stay on the job to recruit and mentor other African-Canadian teachers, and in places such as Peel, Ontario, teachers' unions haven't been helping. As the Toronto Star revealed in a 2020 story:

"When the [Peel District School] Board was forced to apologize for the "harm" it had done, systemically, to Black children for generations, the required acknowledgement, a condition under a series of provincial directives, came in the absence of any meaningful work by the unions.

"For decades, these institutions, dominated by white members and executives, stood by, while issues of racism and other forms of discrimination boiled over.

"In a board whose student body is almost 84 per cent non-white, the unions that hold so much sway over the way education is carried out, have been largely indifferent to students, educators and families fighting for their basic rights."

At other times, it's the union president herself who's the target of racism. Jennifer Brown was the first African-Canadian president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto union, and because she sought to dismantle systemic racism at the TDSB, a racist attempted to intimidate and demoralise her by sending a newspaper story about her scrawled with racist slurs. Other African teachers in Toronto and York have received the same.

In a swamp like this, how likely is it that many African teachers will simply leave the profession? And when they do, who's going to recruit and mentor other African-Canadian teachers to unlock all the good they can do?

The solutions are obvious, and you can help. If you're a principal, hire African teachers, and hire African consultants to train willing teachers (no point in trying to train unwilling ones) Africentrically.

If you're a member of a teacher union, find like-minded people and run for positions to defend teachers facing racism and make the union more Africentric.

If you're a parent, join your school council to advocate hiring more African teachers and using Africentric content to educate and inspire students of all backgrounds. If your school council is the problem, start organising among other parents who share your views so that you can win a majority during the next election.

If you're a voter, contact candidates for school boards in the upcoming elections. Ask them to read this column and the other two in the series, and then to explain if they're elected, how they'll support Africentric education and African-Canadian teacher recruitment, retention, and promotion. Ask for a timeline for implementation. Share your results with me and in your own networks. Help the candidates who make the most realistic pledges get elected, and then hold them to account.

And if you're a student, read my next column.

Minister Faust is a novelist, journalist, teacher, and community organiser living in Edmonton. His column "Wakanda Visions" Africentrically explores frontiers for bettering human prospects through ingenuity and justice. Follow @WakandaVisions on Twitter.

Image: woodleywonderworks/Flickr

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