Dr. Chris Spence and his vision for education


The Africentric Alternative School has a strong proponent who is in an important decision-making position at the Toronto District School Board, and who wants nothing more than to see this alternative elementary school succeed.

There were actually a few gushing fans at the talk that took place onstage last week at the Main Reference Library between Dr. Christopher Spence, Director of Education at the TDSB, and Toronto Star columnist Royson James.

Spence offered assurances that he wants to see the Africentric Alternative School go forward, and that he would do what he could to make sure it continues to be there for future students.

He also took on the contentious charge that the school’s Africentric focus was a form of segregation, terming it not segregation but rather ‘salvation’, and an opportunity to provide an avenue of support and choice for elementary students. The school, located at Sheppard and Keele, actually has more students enrolled – at 130 – than was initially anticipated, and now consequently requires a boost in supplies.

Spence has the same hope for the establishment of a public elementary school for boys, so that those who would be best served by it have such an alternative.

Education, it has often been said, is the route to a better life, providing the foundation for a meaningful life and the skills to participate as a contributing member of society. So to hear the executive raise questions directly related to equity and to hear him state unequivocally that social justice is intertwined with education, signals that here is someone who understands what education in this city is meant to do and meant to be.

Given all the push and pull that propel the dynamics of the TDSB, Spence’s vision for the largest school board in the country is refreshing and a beacon of hope. And it wasn’t simply a case of him preaching to the choir because there were some in the audience of teachers, students, school maintenance workers and other interested persons who had tough questions for Spence once the microphone was opened up to the audience.

Taking on the issue of equity, Spence, who has held the position of Director since September 2009, raised the question of who tends to be privileged and who tends to be marginalized not only within schools but also throughout society. He said he wants to make sure all the 260,000 students in the TDSB system have a level playing field by laying out a policy of engagement.

His other innovative ideas include boosting the presence of music programs in schools because of the way music engages people and motivates students. It seems so obvious to anyone who has learned the alphabet, the multiplication table or the periodic table through music or familiar singsong rhythms.

Disengagement, not underachievement, is the biggest factor leading students to drop out. The fact that the new director understands this and has a game plan to address this challenge is good news, especially for the children in our community many of whom have said quite clearly that they feel no real sense of place in this education system.

A note on the absurdity of life…

It was a hot afternoon and when the bus finally arrived at the station a number of people filed in and began occupying seats from the front to the rear. Then, in one sweeping motion, the passengers at the front evacuated that section and moved with haste to the rear upper section as far back as they could go. The reason, an elderly woman wrapped in layers of soiled clothing and in possession of countless bags took her standing position, seemingly oblivious, near the entrance of the bus. Her bags took the seats. The pungency of her unwashed person surrounded her, an impenetrable barrier keeping her safe from anyone rash enough to approach.

Then, since the fates sometimes amuse themselves at our expense, this was coincidentally an occasion when inexplicably, on a route that normally has almost no traffic, there was instead Don Valley Parkway-like traffic that intermittently crawled but mostly stood still. So a short-run bus route took more than three times as long and, as luck would have it, the poor woman whose rank odor traumatized every new passenger remained on the bus for almost the entire duration of the route.

To her credit, she did not quibble – too much – when asked to pay her fare.

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