By RON FANFAIR
Closing the achievement gap to equitable educational outcomes is the top priority for Dr. Chris Spence as he embarks on his first term as Director of Education of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest school board.
The new school year started on Tuesday.
Spence says his main goal and the board’s mandate is to ensure that all students are on track to graduate on time and that they are being prepared to be contributing and responsible citizens.
Spence assumed the new post at the beginning of July after serving in a similar position with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board for the past five years.
In June 2008, the TDSB board approved the Urban Diversity Strategy which is an action plan that coordinates programs and activities to provide focused and sustaining support to students in marginalized communities who are not achieving academic and social success in school.
“Not all students learn the same way and at the same rate,” Spence told the media last week, a day after his first official meeting with the board’s trustees. “Traditionally, the student has always followed the teacher. But now, more than ever, the teacher has to follow the student and build on what they know and can do. If we can do that in every classroom of every school, we can make significant gains in terms of trying to close the achievement gap.
“I believe that the achievement gap is ultimately vulnerable to the greatness inherent in all children and to the power of talented and hardworking staff who believe in their students and in their own abilities to make a difference. Together, we must make a simple but powerful commitment to our students that they will have the opportunity to pursue their dreams and that it will only be constrained by the limits of their imagination and never their postal code. I believe that with every fibre of my being that we can accomplish that as an organization.”
Spence said he understands and strongly believes there is a need to institutionalize the concept of the caring adult.
“When you take a look at students that have successful outcomes both academically and in life, the common denominator is that they have adults in their lives that care,” he said. “So, that is going to be critical to our success as a system. In years to come, students may forget what we taught them, but they will never forget how we made them feel.
“Students act special when they get treated special and that starts with caring adults such as the mentors, the coaches and the educational system.”
Spence is the third Black Director of Education for a school board after Harold Braithwaite with Peel District School Board and Dr. Avis Glaze who spent two years with the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board before taking up the position as the province’s first student achievement officer and chief executive officer of the Ministry of Education’s Numeracy and Literacy secretariat.
As an educator who understands the importance of creating the best possible outcomes for students, Spence supports programs that provide flexibility and options like the new Africentric Alternative School that opens next week.
“I support choice and this is choice,” said Spence, the 2008 Harry Jerome award winner and John Holland award recipient for professional achievement. “We know that when parents and students are provided with choice, they are more engaged and that’s always a positive indicator of how their academic experience is going to go. It’s the same way that we provide choice for people who are interested in the arts or those that have a talent in sport for them to go to schools and attend programs to nurture that talent and interest.
“When you illuminate the data with Black students in the public education system, there is a sense of concern. I wouldn’t suggest that this school is going to solve all the problems, but you have a strong community mobilization wanting to try something different. We all know that one size doesn’t fit all and this again gives an opportunity to support students who want that kind of experience.”
As part of its commitment to ensuring that its schools are safe, fair and welcoming environments, the TDSB has appointed Uton Robinson as the Systems Superintendent for Safe and Caring Schools and Alternative Programs.
“Given some of the challenges we have had and wanting to be proactive and look at new ways of maintaining a safe environment, we wanted to have a dedicated senior staff person because, again, if you take a look at any organization and what they value, you follow the resources,” said Spence.
“So to put resources into a senior staff person that is going to oversee safe and caring schools is a huge signal to the community about how serious we take this.”
Born in England to Jamaican parents, Spence and his family came to Canada when he was eight years old. He graduated from Simon Fraser University with a criminology degree on the same day that he played his first professional football game for the British Columbia Lions which drafted the running back with the 26th pick in the 1985 draft.
When injury cut short his football career three years later, Spence began working with young people in group homes and detention treatment centres. These experiences led him to begin a flourishing career as an educator, first as a teacher in middle school classrooms in the city’s designated priority neighbourhoods and then as a principal.
With the support and participation of teachers, he transformed Lawrence Heights Middle School, which had a reputation for violence and low academic results, to an education institution which, nine years ago, scored above the city and provincial averages in reading, writing and math.
He started the Boys 2 Men initiative aimed at helping troubled young Black males turn their lives around, the Read to Succeed program that encourages and teaches boys to read and Project G.O. (Girls Only).
Spence also produced two films, No “J” and Football Pioneering Duo (Danny Barrett and Roy Shivers), and authored four books, including The Skin I’m In that discuses the role that sports participation plays in the lives of Black male high school students.