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Chris Spence is the new director of education for Toronto's public school board. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Chris Spence is the new director of education for Toronto's public school board. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

From Globe T.O.

Making every head count Add to ...

One day in the late 1960s an awkward boy stepped onto the soccer field at his Toronto school. A new immigrant from Britain and the only black kid in his class, he stood out for his funny accent and the suit and tie his parents made him wear to school. Schoolmates jeered and bullies chased him home.

When the time came to choose teams, he was the last boy to be picked. Then a teacher stepped forward. "Didn't you play soccer in England, Chris?" she said in front of all the others.

Chris took off his suit jacket and scored six goals in a couple of minutes, running circles around his classmates.

Suddenly popular, he went on to become a successful student, a professional football player, then an author, teacher, vice-principal, principal and superintendent.

When Toronto schools open their doors for the new year on Tuesday, he will be at the helm of Canada's largest school board, the city's first black education director.

None of it might have happened, he says, unless that one teacher made the effort to make him feel included. Now he wants to bring that sense of belonging to every one of the quarter-million kids in the 550 schools under his umbrella.

He has set himself a huge, maybe impossible, challenge. Thousands of kids in the Toronto board are demonstrably failing to fit in. Instead of feeling they belong, they feel alienated, isolated, excluded, abandoned and angry.

In some poorer parts of the city, less than half the students finish high school. One study found that 40 per cent of Toronto students had carried a weapon outside school, and 15 per cent inside.

A provincial panel visited troubled urban neighbourhoods and found gangs proliferating, "students having more difficulty focusing on school, teaching becoming more difficult, schools being unsafe, youth suffering from depression and social-service agencies increasingly unable to keep up."Once a principal in one of the city's toughest districts, Mr. Spence knows all that, and it only makes him more determined. "Students have to feel they belong," says the 47-year-old father of two young children, both in public school. "Before any learning is ever going to happen, that basic need has to be addressed."

Since being appointed education director after five years in the same job for Hamilton, he has been driving home the message to teachers and principals: Believe in your students. Make them feel part of things. Persuade them they have value. Don't ever write a kid off. That was the approach he took at Lawrence Heights Middle School. When he first arrived, fights often broke out in the halls. The bulletin boards were covered with graffiti. Many kids in the low-income area came to school with neither pen nor paper.

Mr. Spence set to work. He let the kids decorate the drab halls with multicultural murals. He taught math to sports-mad boys by using the figures on their baseball cards. He sent kids who had never dreamed of going to university on field trips to the University of Toronto.

He set up "Name and Shame" assemblies to recognize achievers and embarrass trouble-makers. Mr. Spence read out accomplishments first, then listed students who had been in fights or trouble with the police. The school's test results jumped. Lateness, truancy and fighting dropped.

"At Lawrence Heights he was Toronto's equivalent of Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love ," says Toronto restaurateur and philanthropist Peter Oliver, referring to the 1967 film about a dignified new teacher in a tough London school. "He's a big guy and a commanding presence but he has a big heart."

But can he repeat his success at Lawrence Heights for the whole Toronto board? A bureaucratic behemoth, the board has dithered for years over issues such as the need to close under-populated schools and find money to run school swimming pools. Its shelves sag with books and studies on "inclusive education" and "levelling the playing field" for disadvantaged youth. Nothing seems to change.

But, harnessing his compelling personal story to inspire teachers, Mr. Spence is convinced he can make a difference. At a presentation to principals in Etobicoke this week, Mr. Spence had the crowd eating out of his hand. He told jokes about the intellectual limits of football players, flashed pictures on the screen of the gawky young Chris in a bow tie, quoted Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and French philosopher Denis Diderot and peppered his talk with mottos such as "raise the praise" and "embrace the ABCs" (Achieving, Believing, Caring).

Far too often, he told them, educators think that it is beyond their power to help lagging children. They tell themselves: It's the parents' fault, there are no books at home, they come to school hungry - all nothing more than excuses, as he sees it.

"That message was really powerful," said Beth Mills, principal of Dewson Street elementary school. "That teachers can really make a difference and it's on us. It was a message of hope."

Mr. Spence's mother, Enez, said that he has always had a gift for motivating others. As a boy, he would get all the neighbourhood kids together for foot races up and down their driveway. On Mondays he would often bring poorer kids home for roast-beef sandwiches made from leftovers of their Sunday dinner.

Mrs. Spence and her husband Sydney, both raised in Jamaica, moved to Canada after training in Britain, she as a nurse, he an engineer. Like many immigrants, they placed high expectations on their children. Chris's brother is now an investment banker and his sister is a school principal currently teaching at York University.

Raised in Toronto and Windsor, Chris went to Vancouver to attend Simon Fraser University and was drafted by the BC Lions, playing as a running back until sidelined by an injury. Returning to Toronto to study education, he earned a doctorate and wrote several books on education.

What students need most, he stresses, is someone to take an interest in them. While he was director in Hamilton he visited a 17-year-old black man who was in jail for armed robbery. He had just earned his high-school diploma. "What did we do to help?" Mr. Spence asked him. "He said, 'You believed in me,' and that just spoke volumes. Teachers in the jail worked with him and challenged him and saw a brightness in this kid."

Forty years ago on that soccer field, a teacher saw the same potential in the young Chris Spence, giving him "the little opening I needed" to belong. Sometimes, he says, all it takes is a kind word from a teacher or a few minutes of one-on-one attention to turn a student around. Nine of 10 successful students say an adult did or said something that made them believe in themselves.

"If we start to look at kids and predict their failure, it's a formula for disaster," he said. "We have to look at every kid with optimism and a positive outlook. I know there's some kids out there who will challenge our patience and our belief, but what's the alternative, to give up? I just don't think that's an alternative we can entertain."

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