Proponents of single-sex schooling found themselves with an influential new supporter last night, as the education director of the country's largest school board proposed the creation of an all-boys public elementary school in Toronto.
If adopted, the move will boldly extend single-sex education, typically found in a smattering of private academies and Catholic schools nationwide, to the hallways of the Toronto District School Board, and would be a one-of-a-kind program in Ontario.
The man behind the proposed all-boy Male Leadership Academy is Chris Spence: a teacher, academic and former football player. Dr. Spence is also calling for more "boy-friendly" classrooms to address male underachievement.
"The real objective is to cast a critical eye on how we reach and teach our boys," said Dr. Spence, whose 2008 book, The Joys of Teaching Boys, makes the case that boys learn differently from girls and have suffered under a "unisex model for child rearing and teaching."
In Toronto public schools last year, boys were 3.5 times more likely than girls to be suspended. They underperform compared to girls regardless of age, socioeconomic class or ethnicity, and are more likely to need learning support programs.
Dr. Spence, who taught and worked in school administration in Toronto and Hamilton before taking his new post, has long advocated for strong role models for boys to offset what he calls a "fatherless world" for too many youngsters.
A decade ago, he pioneered a mentoring program called Boys 2 Men, which remains popular among Toronto and Hamilton students.
Boys' disengagement at school not only leads to poor grades and unproductive lives, but also can lead to the kind of violence Toronto schools have struggled to control in recent years, he said.
His proposed school would open for kindergarten to Grade 3 students next September and add a grade with each successive year. It would operate as a "school of choice" for interested families.
Single-sex education is nothing new. Leonard Sax, a physician who founded the American National Association for Single-Sex Public Education, cited other examples across Canada - private schools, a Nova Scotia Catholic all-girls school run by the public system and three Toronto Catholic all-boys high schools among them. Some single-sex classes are also offered in Toronto public schools.
But Dr. Spence's all-boys public elementary would be one of a kind in Ontario, Dr. Sax believes.
"Dr. Spence is making a move here," Dr. Sax said. "There are hundreds of public schools in Toronto. Why not have one boys school?"
Glenmerry Elementary School in Trail, B.C., is among the Canadian schools to have experimented with single-sex education, splitting its boys and girls in most of its Grade 7 classes. They've seen boys' test scores jump since the move a few years ago.
"It's been a positive experience," said Mac Gregory, chairman of the Kootenay-Columbia School District board.
Other schools in Canada and the United States, however, have tried the split classroom approach only to revert to a traditional mixed setting.
The success of any Toronto all-boys public school would depend on ensuring teachers are equipped to teach an all-boys class, and the curriculum is developed appropriately, Dr. Sax said.
Dr. Spence pledged to extend a sampling of a male-focused curriculum across all his schools. Within existing co-ed schools, he wants to set up "demonstration classrooms," some all-male and others using "boy-friendly" teaching techniques that recognize their different learning style.
He hopes the initiatives will also lure more male teachers to work in elementary schools, where they are underrepresented.
"Boys really thrive in environments that are hands-on; they thrive in environments in which there is structure, but also where they're empowered" to move about the classroom, he said. Under the traditional unisex approach, "When every bone in a boy's body is telling him to get up and move around, we're usually telling him to sit down and be quiet."
Catering to the specific learning needs of boys need not take away from similar efforts to help girls, said Dr. Spence, a 47-year-old father of a boy and a girl who attend public elementary schools.
"I think that if you embrace equity, then you understand that equity is equal access to the system, and that may require differentiated treatment," he said. "There's a lot to be done in terms of girls ... but when you look at the data [regarding boys] to me it's just so compelling, so we have to do something about it."
"This is just an example of differentiating our treatment to better support our boys."
Reception at the board committee meeting last night was mixed, and the proposal will still have to be approved by the full board. Some suggested more single-sex classrooms would be a prudent approach, while board trustee Bruce Davis said he supported both an all-boys school and another for girls, as well.
"Our style of teaching right now is very much about conforming, and sitting and listening, and not all boys learn that way," Mr. Davis said in an interview.
With a report from Sarah Boesveld in Toronto