Innovation key to education excellence – Spence



Fuelling excellence in education through innovation is one of the key elements of this year’s Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) annual operating plan.

Shortly after becoming director of education two years ago, Dr. Chris Spence developed a $1.7 million “Vision of Hope” strategic direction that involves a series of inventive programs and projects focused on raising student achievement, enhancing parent and community engagement and achieving financial stability.

The objectives are integral to achieving better student outcomes.

“Innovation is the engine that drives transformation and creativity is the fuel,” Spence said at a Ward 19 Scarborough Centre forum organized by trustee David Smith at Woburn Collegiate Institute last week.

He said the board is considering establishing an innovation platform that will be more like a brain box and studio for staging ideas around collaboration and best practices.

“One of the questions I am asking this year is, “Will you be the 10th person?’,” Spence said. “For every nine people who denounce innovation, only one will encourage it. For every nine persons who do things the way they have always been done, only one will ever wonder if there is a better way. And for every nine persons who stand in line in front of a locked building, only one will ever come around and check the backdoor.

“Our progress in the system rests squarely on the shoulders of the 10th person. The nine are satisfied with the things they have always done. Person 10 determines what needs to be done differently and that’s what we are going to need. We are going to need a different perspective and a different approach as we continue to create schools of the future. Part of our role is to prepare our students for what they are going to face when they leave us. They must be active learners who can collaborate, communicate and problem solve.

“So I think part of what we need to do is change the traditional role of the teacher from the teacher being the knowledge-giver to the teacher being the knowledge-facilitator…

“When I talk to today’s kids, they tell me they want to be creative. They can be a filmmaker on YouTube, a record artist on Second Life or an opinion leader on the blogs. We have to find a way to bring the 21st century into our classrooms and nurture environments which really respect all the different learning styles our students have.”

For every student to be given an opportunity to flourish, Spence urged teachers, some of whom were in the audience, to reject negative stereotypes about student potential when they are doing their job.

“There are no limitations based on factors such as race and gender,” the former Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board director of education said. “What we are trying to do is create an equitable system where all students can achieve. I think we have to make a simple but powerful commitment to all of our students and that is the opportunity to pursue their dreams will be constrained only by the limits of their imagination and never their postal code. I believe with every fibre of my body that we are on the path to accomplishing that.”

With Spence at the helm, the TDSB has created several innovative projects, including the iPod Touch study at Beverley Public School to assess the effects of using lower cost handheld touch-technologies in the classroom instruction of children with communication disorders and a Grade Six Mobile Computing Strategy.

“We have to prepare our students to participate in the global marketplace and it has to be innovative because if we keep doing the same thing, we are going to keep getting the same results,” he said. “And for some of our students, that’s not good news. We have to be driven by relationships and we have to leverage the strengths we have. The TDSB is the largest and most diverse school board in the country, we are a force to be reckoned with and we have an international brand that speaks to equity, education and excellence.”

While the board is making strides to close the achievement gap, Spence said there are some challenges to be addressed.

The former Canadian Football League running back expressed concerns about declining enrolment of about 4,000 annually, disengaged parents and community, student’s health and a flawed funding formula.

The TDSB faces a $2 billion backlog in deferred maintenance, a $61.7 million capital deficit and a $30 million operating structural shortage.

Spence said a three-year operating recovery plan developed to address the shortfalls was recently approved.

Smith defeated Scott Harrison for the Ward 19 trustee position in last year’s municipal elections. He said a $46 million funding plan has been endorsed for the construction of a new building on Midland Ave., just north of Lawrence Ave. that will house David and Mary Thomson Collegiate and neighbouring Bendale Business & Technical Institute which will form an expanded state-of-the-art education campus.

This is the second ward forum Smith has hosted. The first took place last April at Cedarbrae Collegiate Institute.

South East 3 region superintendent Nadine Segal addressed the board’s specialized programs, including the priority school initiative that provides free after school access to 77 schools in high priority neighbourhoods for non-charitable organizations to offer community programs.

Seven of the schools are in Scarborough Centre. They are Bendale, Cedarbrae Collegiate Institute, Charles Gordon Senior Public School, Dorset Park Public School, Pringdale Gardens and Woburn Junior Public schools.

Last year, 113,000 hours of school space was offered to the community free of charge.

“This has really helped us achieve our goal of schools becoming vibrant hubs of our communities,” said Segal.

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