“I believe that you are resources to be developed and not problems to be fixed.”
That was the message Toronto District School Board (TDSB) director Dr. Chris Spence delivered to nearly 310 African-Canadian youth from 31 high schools at a one-day student conference last week.
The aim of the event was to get a better sense from the students what the board could do to enhance their learning opportunities and enable them to attain successful outcomes both academically and in life.
Admitting that most educators don’t know the potential of their students, Spence pointed to an American school district that allows only computers in the class that are built by the students as a model experiment to promote student genius.
“Just a brilliant concept and so doable from a perspective of student talent,” said Spence.
“You see, the same kids that we think can’t read and write well can create and remember complex lyrics set to hip-hop music. The same kids who can’t even spell can understand movement on a basketball court, travel through time and space, anticipate future moves and create elegant responses. Don’t tell me you can’t learn. It’s how we teach you and how we engage you.”
Spence acknowledged the challenges young people face in the public school system, admitting that he was subjected to some of the same peer pressure when he came to Canada from England with his parents at age eight. He encouraged the young people to follow his lead and turn their challenges into opportunities.
“Bullies chased me home and I took my books, put them under my arm and ran to the library which was the safest place,” he recalled. “That was where my interest in reading and writing really began. I really do believe that libraries are gems in our community and you should access them whenever you get the opportunity. The great thing about it is that all that running away from bullies helped me to be a good football player.”
Spence attended Simon Fraser University on a football scholarship and graduated with a Criminology degree on the same day that he made his Canadian Football League (CFL) debut 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.
Spence shared his game plan for success with the students, telling them to be prepared to fail, acknowledge the people that are contributing to their development, take responsibility for things they do, eat well, live right and make good decisions, embrace literacy for life, choose their friends wisely, set goals and believe in themselves.
“I think our role as educators is to make sure that we believe in you until you believe in yourself,” said Spence who has made it clear that the educational achievement of Black boys will be the litmus test for the TDSB. “Our overarching goal is to prepare you for what you are going to face when you leave us…Education is the most powerful tool which we can use to change the world. So whatever conversations you had today and whatever concerns were raised, I can tell you right now that education is going to be a part of the solution. I am here to encourage you to turn some of those issues that were raised today into positive solutions so that you can have the future that you deserve.”
The conference participants were chosen from schools where the failure rate among Black students is high.
“Those are the schools we need to create the most change,” said conference organizer Lloyd McKell, the TDSB first executive officer for Student and Community Equity. “If we can make a difference in those schools, it will have a long-term effect on how we move forward and how we do things differently.”
Teachers also participated in the historic Choosing Success conference bringing together Grade 11 and 12 African-Canadian students during Black History Month.
“We invited teachers we define as caring adults who will take a personal interest in working with these kids by encouraging them not only to improve their own circumstances but to support them to become leaders in their school,” McKell added. “We want the student participants to be catalysts for change and a network of leadership.”