Feature / Winter 2011
Different but Equal

Toronto parents can choose to send their children to a variety of specialized schools. But is it possible to have too much choice in alternative education?


Photo by Brent Lewin

Chris Spence, the director of education for the Toronto District School Board, believes in providing parents and students with choices in public education. Under his leadership, alternative schools have flourished.

In a way, it’s surprising that Chris Spence’s professional football career ended with an injury to his Achilles tendon. As director of education for the Toronto District School Board, he needs heels of steel to fend off the arrows that fly his way each day.

Some come from parents, angered about his plan to close schools. Others come from trustees skeptical about his strong ideas on à la carte schooling. And still others from teachers who question the intensity of his old-fashioned idealism, embodied in a bold plan he calls his “Vision of Hope.”

“I believe the world’s changing,” Spence says, with the quiet conviction that’s steadied him throughout his remarkable career. “The only thing that isn’t changing is our schools. We have to keep our eyes on the future so we can best prepare our kids for it.”

Without doubt, Spence’s biggest enemy is numbers. In Toronto, children have been leaving public education in droves: the system is losing almost 4,000 children each year. A declining birthrate, families with kids moving to suburbia, the attraction of private schools and even home-schooling have caused enrolment to fall significantly over the last decade. Then there is the dropout rate. Roughly 25 per cent of students are not graduating from high school, but this figure rises within certain ethnic groups that Spence intends to target for special attention. These groups include aboriginal and Middle Eastern students, as well as students from Central and South America and the Caribbean, whose dropout rates exceed 40 per cent.

Spence thinks he might be able to stem the flight from public schools by giving parents more choice in how their children are educated. He would like to see four new specialized schools open in 2011, adding to the 41 (out of 557 schools in the Toronto board) that already exist. The new schools will concentrate on choir and sports, as well as unisex education. “One size doesn’t fit all,” says Spence. “We’re going to try to provide opportunities so that parents and their children can sit down and say here’s what we want in terms of a learning environment, and where can we get it?”

Many of these choices were available long before Spence came along. French immersion, the granddaddy of boutique schooling, has been around for more than 40 years. But the Toronto of today offers vastly more: there are schools that concentrate on the arts, on math and science, on social justice and the environment. There is a school specifically for gay teenagers, and one for single parents. One school holds kindergarten classes outdoors when possible, and others are unstructured, without tests or homework.

Most controversial, perhaps, are the schools tailored to student ethnicity, such as the east end’s First Nations School, or the much-discussed Africentric Alternative School. For some, such schools revive the ugly spectre of segregation, exactly the sort of menace the U.S. mercifully struck down with Brown vs. the Board of Education in the 1950s. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty when the idea of an Africentric school was first proposed. “I think our shared responsibility is to look for ways to bring people together. One of the most powerful agents of social cohesion is through publicly funded education.”

But total cohesion may be something of a pipe dream, says Spence. “I think we are very much segregated, based on socioeconomics. It’s happening already!” he exclaims. In Toronto, seven out of 10 students belong to visible minority groups – and since the city is carved into ethnic enclaves, certain groups will naturally predominate in a given school. But the teachers and curriculum are not reflecting these changing circumstances, and that’s what Spence aims to correct.

“It’s not segregation, it’s salvation,” he says. (Catchy slogans are often the glue Spence uses to get his messages to stick.) “Getting an opportunity to be in an environment that reflects who they are is salvation for many kids who end up not even dropping out, but being pushed out because they don’t fit the status quo.”

Spence “wouldn’t change a thing” about his own upbringing, but he clearly knows what it’s like to feel alienated in school. Born in England in 1962, he immigrated seven years later with his parents and siblings to Windsor, Ontario. There, as one of very few black students in his school, he was bullied routinely. “I didn’t want to come to school,” he says. “There were guys there who were going to try and take my lunch and make me feel like I didn’t belong.” Still, attentive professional parents (his mother was a nurse, his father an engineer) and good relationships with teachers helped him to prosper.

He has joked that running from bullies helped him develop athletic talents. In the 1980s, he played two seasons as running back for the B.C. Lions before injury propelled him back to school. After earning a degree in criminology, he started working with juvenile offenders. “It was just really demoralizing,” he says of that time. “I thought, I want to get to these kids before they end up here. Because when they do, it’s almost like society’s given up on them. So that was the contribution that I was going to make: I wanted to make sure kids didn’t end up in those circumstances.”

In 1996, he earned a doctorate from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and decided to apply his knowledge as a teacher – then middle-school principal – in one of Toronto’s lower-income neighbourhoods. This last experience informed the second of his four books, entitled On Time! On Task! On a Mission! It diarizes the 1998-1999 school year at Lawrence Heights Middle School, a place where students were given to hurling library books out the window, mooning teachers, defacing property and worse. A place where one student told him, “It doesn’t matter what you guys do. By the time I’m 16 I’m going to end up in jail.”

With a vigorous program of changes, including school uniforms, summer camp and Saturday schooling, Spence was able to instil hope in many of these young adolescents. It’s something he’d been doing for a while. While teaching in 1993, he co-founded a program called Boys2Men, through which at-risk boys are assigned a male mentor who helps tutor them and acts as a role model. The program now boasts more than 70 chapters located in schools across the province.

In fact, strengthening the fragile state of boys’ education has become Spence’s abiding passion. In general, girls now outperform boys on tests of reading and achieve equal results in mathematics and sciences, resulting in a marked gender split by the time students reach university; in Canada, there are currently three women for every two men studying at the post-secondary level. Spence is not alone in his concerns: in the bestselling book Boys Adrift, psychologist and physician Leonard Sax bemoans a culture in which many males now live at home well past boyhood, confused in a world in which traditional notions of masculinity have lost their meaning, and where many boys grow up without fathers.

Experimental all-boys classes have been offered by the school board for years; Spence taught several of them himself. He thinks the time for a publicly funded all-boys school is long overdue. “Anything that we do really has to be driven by the data,” he says, “and when you look at who we suspend or who’s underachieving, it’s boys.” (Records from the Toronto board show that male students receive 77 per cent of all suspensions.)

As a teacher of an all-boys class, Spence’s methods were extremely personal and decidedly old school. “I wouldn’t let the students come into the classroom until I’d shaken their hand,” he says. “I’d say, Ricky, I believe in you. Today’s your day. I really need you to focus in period two. Next guy: John! How was your evening? Hope you have a great day. Let’s do lots of learning today. It took 10 seconds. But it demonstrated that whatever happened to them yesterday, that was yesterday. Today was a new day.”

Research does suggest that boys and girls learn differently, and a casual observation bears this out. On a September morning at Lord Dufferin Public School in Regent Park, I observed a select group of middle-school pupils in unisex classrooms. Both groups were focused and attentive, but the girls were much more static – “I should see some movement here,” admonished their teacher, urging them out of their desks to fetch equipment. They also appeared more consultative, asking each other “what do you think?” when working on a group activity.

In the boys’ math class down the hall, things were different. Small groups working on a problem were more hierarchical in nature, and the boys’ apparent need to move around was not discouraged. One boy stood while figuring out a problem, another lay on the rug and yet another sat hunched over his desk, kicking his heels together.

But both groups were equally well-behaved: it is a myth that boys naturally descend into Lord of the Flies savagery when deprived of the “civilizing” influence of girls. Lord Dufferin principal Gary Crossdale says that in single-sex classes, “the boys are more calm,” since they don’t feel the need to show off. “Teachers can talk directly to the boys about proper interaction with girls,” he says, “and really make it part of the learning. Sometimes we assume kids just learn these things, but we can’t assume anything.”

In spite of the evidence supporting him, Spence has met with opposition from those who do not buy his vision. A 2007 report by the provincial government’s Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat suggested that if anybody benefited from unisex education, it was actually girls, not boys. And certain trustees on the board are firmly entrenched in their opposition. “To say that boys are fundamentally different than girls runs counter to our core philosophy, and is something that will damage all our schools,” says trustee Howard Goodman. He attributes differing success rates for boys and girls to things such as student-teacher interaction and school quality. Goodman also cites a recent northern Ontario study, which showed that simple changes in kindergarten pedagogy could eliminate a long-standing (and in his opinion, highly patronizing) notion: that girls generally enter school with as much as a two-year head start in reading and writing over boys. In the end, “some boys are superior academically, and some girls are dropouts,” he says. “The question is, how do we help all kids who are at the bottom end?”

Spence admits that boys are not a homogeneous group. “I have a son who’s seven years old. Would I put him in an all-boys’ school? Probably not! He’s doing fine in the [public] school that he’s in right now. But there are a whole lot of boys who aren’t, for a whole lot of reasons. So why not try to find, and customize, an environment that’s going to meet their needs?”

One of the hallmarks of emotional intelligence – something Spence has always tried to encourage – is the idea of being comfortable with ambiguity. If ever there was a debate that demanded ambiguity, it’s the one about customized schooling. There are other objections: some have questioned whether the increase in alternative schools will siphon resources from a cash-strapped board, since they are small institutions with separate administrative costs. And even though these schools were designed to provide private-style options to parents who can’t afford $20,000 in yearly tuition, education activists such as Annie Kidder have observed that they still appeal mostly to white, middle-class students.

Further, fixing one aspect of a student’s difficulties might not fix all of them. Tailoring schools to ethnicity, for example, is not in and of itself a perfect solution. The Africentric Alternative School (not a stand-alone school, but one housed within a regular public school building) is now in its second year and thriving, with a waiting list and excellent results on standardized tests. The much-older First Nations School, however, has struggled with poor test results and frequent suspensions.

Like many alternative schools, the First Nations School shares space with another school, and its high suspension rate has been attributed to fighting between the two. Spence thinks “the environment there has to be refreshed somewhat. When you walk into a school, you need to feel that sense of belonging.” Still, the school-within-a-school model seems a necessity for tiny programs offered by a system with large, underpopulated buildings.

These school buildings are relics from a time when children came from bigger families, hailed mostly from Northern Europe and were thought of as identical, empty vessels, without particular needs or learning challenges. Many of these schools are severely undersubscribed now; for those who cherish the idea of schools as places where community bonds are forged, school closings are a regrettable reality. “When a school’s half empty, you have half the resources. And kids don’t get the kind of programming that they want and deserve,” says Spence. So even though alternative schools now represent a small fraction of the board’s total complement, schools-within-schools are almost sure to increase in the future, as the board seeks to fill them with students who would otherwise have sought other educational options.

Yes, it will mean longer commutes for children used to walking. It will mean more separation, in a city that prides itself on being a model of multicultural, and increasingly non-sexist, harmony. But Chris Spence is banking on the idea that when students obtain a strong sense of self early in life, they will be better equipped to take their place in a community as richly varied as Toronto. “More voice and more choice,” he says, ever the sloganeer. “If we can give them those things, we have a better chance of success for all our kids.”

Cynthia Macdonald (BA 1986 St. Michael’s) is a writer in Toronto. She profiled the Munk School of Global Affairs in the Autumn 2010 issue.


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