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Q&A: we ask TDSB director Chris Spence if specialized schools are becoming too specialized

TDSB director Chris Spence is launching a series of public elementary academies, each focused on singing, wellness or leadership

Chris Spence

(Image: Mark Peckmezian)

This month, Toronto kids will start classes at a vocal school, a boys-only school, a girls-only school and a health and wellness school. Do we really need such specialized programs?
It’s about providing more choice. The biggest issue kids face today isn’t underachievement; it’s disengagement. When I was a kid, football was what kept me at school. For other kids, it might be glee club or debating club.

What’s a health and wellness academy?
It will focus on healthy, active living. The traditional subjects will still be taught, but the specialized subject will be infused into everything the students do.

And the vocal academy?
Again, singing will be a way into the other subjects. The kids’ love of singing will spill over to other areas of their lives.

Many people think the solution to disengagement is to teach the three Rs and make kids buckle down. What’s your response to that mindset?
It’s outdated. Kids can be picture smart, word smart, math smart, people smart, body smart. They all learn differently.

But where does it stop? Some kids are passionate about mixed martial arts. Does that mean the TDSB should start an MMA academy?
The focus of each academy is driven by research. We aren’t starting a video games academy. Research shows that environments that cater to students’ passions can enhance their academic skills.

Canada’s first Africentric high school program starts this month in Scarborough. Would you prefer that separation along racial lines weren’t necessary?
Absolutely. I would love it if all kids’ needs could be met at their local school. But that’s not the case. These specialized schools help ensure that all students feel a sense of connectedness.

Doesn’t specialization engender the opposite of connectedness—a sort of compartmentalization?
I don’t think so. I think schools should allow kids to find themselves. If kids are engaged by dance, singing, football, basketball or technology, we have a duty to nurture those interests.

I keep hearing that teachers don’t penalize students for late work anymore. Doesn’t that set kids up to fail?
It’s complicated. If my teacher said to me, “If you don’t have that assignment in on Friday, you can’t play football,” trust me, I’d get it in. But another kid might say, “Yeah, so what?” If the teacher follows through, the kid ends up further from where you want him to be.

You played in the CFL. Would you have dropped out of school if not for football?
I hope that I would have found another outlet. School was tough, though. I was the only kid of colour and I had a lot of lonely lunches. But I had great opportunities, and my parents filled any gap that the school didn’t. They made sure I knew our history and who I was. When you talk to black kids and black parents today, you feel that there’s a knowledge gap.

Are parents partly to blame, then, for the state of our education system?
They’re definitely part of it. They’re a student’s first and best teachers. Often, a parent’s first question to a teacher is, “Is my child behaving?” I’d much prefer to be asked, “Can my child read and write?”

And you think these academies will help kids and parents get to that point?
Choosing the environment means ownership; ownership means involvement. Therefore the question won’t be, “Is my child behaving?” It’ll be, “How is he doing in math class?”

 

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