Tucked away on a street corner near Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it homeschooling haven called Sage and Savant. It’s not actually a home, it’s a small storefront—a beautiful, light-filled space with large glass windows, a cursive sign, and children spilling from the door when it’s time to play outside.
In many ways, Sage and Savant’s obscure little storefront could be seen as a metaphor for the crisis Black students are facing within Canada’s education system: if you aren’t looking for it, you won’t see it. I see it, as a Black mom, because my children are in the midst of it. I hear about it, from other Black parents and white parents of Black children, desperate to ensure their child can receive a peaceful and trauma-free education. But if you aren’t in the trenches, you don’t know about it.
Since it opened in early 2019, Sage and Savant has become a safe haven and a resource hub for parents who’ve chosen to pull their kids from public and private schools, preferring to figure out a more customized, creative way to homeschool (or “un-school”) their children. Numbers are hard to find, however. While you can find a few reports and some limited data on how Black children are treated differently at school, there’s a real lack of hard statistical data on exactly how many Black kids are being pulled out and homeschooled.
In Black mom Facebook groups, parents post congratulatory updates about their teenagers graduating high school or getting into the program of their choice for post-secondary school. These posts aren’t just a celebration of a child who’s grown up—it’s an acknowledgement of the many battles that parent may have had to fight on their child’s behalf, because of their race.
Siri Avtar, a home-schooling mom of three in Toronto, got nearly 800 likes on Facebook after she shared that her homeschooled eldest son had been accepted to York University. This collective pride is also a sigh of relief: Relief that a Black child has made it through a system so rife with anti-Black racism, structural racism and the remnants of colonialism that it’s no surprise so many Black children are left broken and traumatized by their educational experience.
Avtar’s son wasn’t homeschooled for the entirety of his education. When he was in grade one, she enrolled him in an alternative Indigenous school.
“We are Afro-Indigenous, so I thought it would be great for him to experience Indigenous spirituality at school, but the education system was [still] an issue,” she says. “The bullying, and profiling of him as a Black boy, and not enough one-on-one support, was unbearable.” Avtar went back to homeschooling the next year.
The experiences Avtar describes are part of what led Ahmeda Mansaray-Richardson, owner of Sage and Savant, to choose homeschooling for her five sons and, eventually, to open up the storefront space.
At the time, one of her younger sons was in grade 2. “He had an incredible teacher and a caring administration, but he still suffered because of the stereotypical ideas of Black boyhood that were the lenses through which he was seen through,” she explains. “He became an expert in stitching himself up into a personality demanded by his surroundings, and it broke my heart to watch him transform into a smaller, lacklustre version of himself.”
Even though both the administration and the teachers were willing to engage in conversations about diversity, says Mansaray-Richardson, the school’s overall systemic, structural and pedagogical limitations didn’t allow him to thrive. He suddenly started making himself “small” and closing himself off, squelching his passion for learning in the process.
“My children ask a lot of questions and are very outgoing,” says Mansaray-Richardson. “In a traditional school setting, their learning styles, which include kinesthetic and naturalistic needs, can’t be met. The school system is not resourced to help young Black boys who love to ask questions and who need to move and be outside to thrive in their learning.” Young Black boys also don’t often get to see themselves in their teachers, she explains, or represented in their learning tools and classroom materials.
Over the years, each of her sons experienced similar situations in their classrooms. “Often they were either penalized, or felt minimized for their personalities, for their curiosity and for their questioning. It left them with little opportunity to truly discover and ignite their passion for learning,” says Mansaray-Richardson. They would come home feeling like they didn’t matter, or had been brushed off. “I knew they would have to work to set themselves apart from the stereotypes. This was way too much to ask of them—too much to ask of anyone.”
10 things you should never say to parents who homeschool “In my opinion they ought to be empowered to be curious, and to imagine their best and brightest future—instead of the pressure of having to police themselves in their formative years.”
Many parents also report that their children’s teachers have a tendency to suggest Black kids get tested for learning or behavioural differences like ADHD.
The research backs up this school experience for Black children. According to a 2017 report called Towards Race Equity in Education, which examines the schooling of Black students in the Toronto District School Board, Black children face hyper-surveillance of their behaviour in schools. They are excluded from class more often, disciplined more frequently, they are suspended and expelled from schools at higher rates, they are pushed into non-academic streams in school and Black boys in particular are disengaging from school as early as age seven. The report’s main author, Carl James, a professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, explains that this means not wanting to go to school, not feeling safe and not feeling welcomed in classrooms that are not designed for them.
As a mom of a now nine-year-old Black boy, I have dealt with this disengagement and hyper-surveillance. For my son, it started around age seven, like clockwork—just as the studies said it would. That was the year I received a phone call from my son’s grade two teacher, claiming that the scissors he was using during art class made him a threat to himself and others around him. It’s hard to bear witness to, and it’s difficult to articulate how the remnants of colonialism—the foundation of the schools our kids attend—can be so detrimental to Black children.
It’s why, at a recent meeting of the newly-formed York region advocacy group Parents of Black Children (full disclosure: I’m on the steering committee), parents demanded change. One mother desperately expressed concern over the mental health of Black children, who feel shut out of their school communities. “The Black kids at my child’s high school in York Region eat their lunch in the hallways,” she said. “They say they know their place and they aren’t welcomed in the school cafeteria.”
This isn’t just a Toronto problem. In her book, Policing Black Lives, the author Robyn Maynard cites the persistent anti-Blackness in schools across Canada, explaining the degradation, harm and psychological violence many Black students face. In 2015, it was exposed that in the Halifax Regional School Board, nearly half of the students placed on Individual Program Plans (IPPs) were Black. In Mississauga, Ont., there was a six-year-old girl placed in handcuffs after misbehaving at school. Maynard also cites a 2004 study that found that only half of the Black students in Canada starting high school between 1994-1996 graduated, compared to a 69 percent graduation rate for the overall population.
For Mansaray-Richardson, it wasn’t worth it. She pulled her kids out of the school system and her homeschooling journey began. Soon, friends started prying her with questions, jokingly suggesting she homeschool their kids, too. So she decided to create a facility that could empower all parents to work together educating their children.
Sage and Savant, the “social innovation co-working” space Mansaray-Richardon opened, has a wall of green foliage and hanging plants. The soft beats of djembe drum recordings play in the background. Large communal wooden tables encourage children to spread out and take up space as they do their work. There’s an art studio, a small kitchen for snack prep and cooking lessons, and a maker space with sewing materials, music equipment, a 3D printer and science lab tools.
According to Mansaray-Richardson, it’s a “yes space” for all, not just Black children. In fact, most of the kids that frequent her facility are actually white. But they’re benefiting from an inclusive learning environment, where they’re free to question, develop critical thinking skills and nurture their interest in social issues and social justice. For Black children, many of whom hear “no” frequently at school, this kind of classroom can open a world of possibilities and offer them a sense of peace and freedom they simply don’t enjoy in traditional settings.
Sage and Savant designs programming for each individual child and parent, building courses centred around the needs, interests and passions of the families who come to them. “We look in our network for facilitators to work with us to create a tailored course. Then we put out the word and parents with interest sign up,” says Mansaray-Richardson. Parents can homeschool full-time or part-time, taking kids out of their classrooms a few days a week to supplement their education with self-directed learning. Parents are also able to choose from a variety of programs, from drop-in hours to a more extensive “concierge service,” in which Mansaray-Richardson and her team develop the schedules, curriculum and lessons plans based on a child’s passions and learning styles. “Parents who want to do the teaching themselves can work with us to put everything together, and then we walk along with them to execute and monitor progress,” she says.
They also offers a 10-week, part-time “university for kids” program that uses a child’s identified passion (oceans or tall buildings, for example) to create content for a facilitated workshop that meets the local school boards’ grade-appropriate learning expectations in all subjects. For the drop-in program, parents sign up in advance, then come use the facility to teach their own kids. (It costs $35 per visit.)
I’ve flirted with the idea of homeschooling my kids. I’ve also thought about the merits of private schools. As the new school year begins, I’m anxious to get to know my kids’ new teachers. I wonder whether they will have any knowledge of equity, and whether they will see my Black children as whole beings, or will they have preconceived notions of who my kids are? Will it creep into the way they’re treated? Will they be targeted and disciplined for behaviours that other students get a pass on? Will they be allowed to make mistakes? To just be kids?
Sage and Savant is an innovative place, where children of all races can feel free to achieve their full potential. But not all Black students can opt out of the public school system, and in reality, we shouldn’t have to. Equity and an education system free from anti-Black racism should be a given.
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